A Guide for Busy People Who Want to Build New Income Streams

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John writes in:

Recently, you mentioned in this article that you’ve set up some additional income streams to the point “where any income stream can go away and it won’t really adversely affect my family.” — I’m curious to know what they are and how you’ve achieved that.

I’ve been listening and reading up on multiple income streams for a few years now and from what I understand they are really hard to build for people with full-time jobs and young children to the point they would start providing a decent income.

Building new income streams takes a lot of work. Starting any kind of side gig takes a great deal of effort and that new income stream often doesn’t make a whole lot of money at first. It takes a great deal of continuous effort to start seeing results, and even then, it builds slowly. Most people give up before that.

It’s even harder when that income stream is a passive one. Most people think that a passive income stream means that you just make something, throw it out there, and profit from it. Sure, you can do that, but you’ll make income in a trickle.

So, let’s say you’re a busy person like John or myself. You have a main career with a full-time job. You have a family with children. You have all of the other maintenance of daily life. You have (hopefully) some semblance of social connections as well, and perhaps a hobby or two. Those things added together can eat up almost all of your day. How can you possibly build new income streams?

Over the past few years, I’ve been tackling this exact problem in a number of ways, with reasonable success. I’m going to describe some of these initiatives in detail, but for now, I’m not going to mention specifics. Why? I’m trying to build these things without using the audience I have for The Simple Dollar, because that would be an advantage that others do not have, and I intend to write about each of them in full detail once they’ve had some more time to mature.

Speaking of The Simple Dollar, let’s start with that one.

Blogging

The Simple Dollar started as a “side gig” for me back in 2006 when I felt the urge to start writing about my financial turnaround. It struck a chord and eventually grew into my full-time work. The Simple Dollar was a website I started completely on my own. I was able to earn an income from it by placing advertisements on the site, as well as using Amazon affiliate links when I would talk about a book or other product that had positively impacted my life.

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s easy to set up, for starters. Anyone can start a blog using Blogger for free, or you can host it separately using something like Squarespace. Adding advertisements is easy, too, using tools like Google Adsense, and you can join Amazon’s associate program to generate a bit of income when you describe a product and people click through to Amazon’s site to learn more about it. It’s low-cost, too, as you can basically start all of this for free.

Why it can work well for busy people: You can define your own posting schedule and make it nice and slow if you wish, though a slower posting schedule usually does mean that it’s harder to build up a lot of visitors (which you need to make money) because you simply don’t have a lot of articles for people to search for and find. You can pick your own topics as well. Another advantage is if you decide to take a break, your archived writings will continue to earn income for a while, though that income will slowly decline over time.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: It takes a ton of consistent work to build an audience for a blog. Not only do you have to write on a very consistent basis for quite a while, you also have to put in the footwork to find communities in which to talk about and share your site with interested parties without being a spammer (which can result in very negative things for your site). Writing consistently takes a ton of work; building an audience takes a ton of work. You need both to succeed with a blog.

Another challenge is that you have to be focused on a particular topic. Websites that wander from topic to topic almost never find an audience. This means that you have to choose a topic that’s going to consistently provide something for you to write about all the time and then stick with that topic (and similar topics).

It’s a lot of very consistent work. Now, this can work well for some busy people who have highly consistent schedules, which I did when I was first starting The Simple Dollar. I locked in a very consistent daily routine that gave me a block of time each evening to work on the site. This site was built in the evenings after long days at work, and often in those evenings I was holding a baby on my shoulder while clicking a mouse or bouncing a toddler on my knee while typing.

Another challenge is that it’s hard to earn a lot of money unless you have a pretty big audience. You need thousands of consistent readers (or else lots of well-regarded pages in Google for people to find via lots of different searches) in order to be able to make consistent money via advertisements. Until you have that, you won’t earn a ton of money. My first year or two with The Simple Dollar showed monthly income that’s better described in pennies rather than dollars.

Should you do it? If you have a good broad topic in mind, enjoy writing short essays, and can do so quite often and with relative ease, blogging might really click with you. This describes my own writing style quite well. However, it takes a long time to start earning an income from blogging and you will need to do some self-promotion.

Now, we’ll move on to some of the other potential side gigs for busy people, many of which I have direct experience with and others which are drawn from the experiences of close friends. Right up front, let’s be clear: I have experience with each of these, but I’m intentionally not talking about specifics at the moment because I don’t want to “spoil” their results by using The Simple Dollar as a platform to advertise them. I want to, in the future, be able to write about the results a person can achieve without being able to leverage something like The Simple Dollar to help it grow. When that happens, you better believe I’ll talk about the exact things I’ve made, but until then, I’m going to speak in more vague terms.

YouTube

A YouTube channel is something that anyone can create. It’s a collection of videos uploaded to YouTube made by the same creator (or team of creators) that people can subscribe to and watch. You might, for example, make a series of cooking videos or pocketknife review videos or videos on hunting tactics or videos discussing the latest events in the NBA. It’s generally a good idea to have a consistent theme to your videos. These videos earn income through advertisements placed before and during the videos by Google (and some popular channels can earn income through product placement arrangements). Many YouTubers earn additional income through Patreon.

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s very easy to get started. Starting a channel is free. You can make videos and upload them to YouTube on a smartphone or virtually any computer with a good internet connection, and once they’re uploaded, they stay there forever. You can define your own video creation schedule, too.

Why it can work well for busy people: Much like blogging, you can pick your own production and posting schedule and you can pick your own topic. You don’t even have to worry at all about hosting issues – your only real worry is making videos and then promoting them. Another advantage is that you can take breaks from creating videos and your older videos will continue to earn revenue for quite a long time.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Video production can take a lot of time. Even though you’re posting at your own pace and schedule, it can still take quite a lot of time to come up with an idea for a video, plan out the content, film it, edit it, and post it. Making something look halfway decent also takes some video editing skills, which you may have to learn before you even start.

There’s also the issue of promotion, which is something we’ll come back to time and time again. To make money off of online content you create, you need viewers, and to get viewers, you have to promote what you’ve made. That means spending the time to get involved with a community that would be receptive to your videos. Of course, if you’re making videos on things you already enjoy, this should be relatively easy and fun, but it still takes a long time.

And, again, much like blogging, it takes a substantial audience to make more than pennies with this. You either need a lot of videos or a healthy handful of really, really good videos to start building an audience and that means a lot of work before you really earn much money at all.

Should you do it? If you have a good topic in mind and the idea of making videos about it seems fun to you, then this can be a good hobby. However, as with many of the ideas here, you should expect that you won’t make much money for quite a while, and you will need to do some self-promotion.

Podcasting

Podcasting centers around recording audio programs and releasing them via the internet for others to listen to as they choose. You simply list your podcast with various services, record episodes, release them, and then people who use those services can discover and listen to your podcast. I like to describe it as “independent talk radio.”

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s fairly easy to record a podcast episode; you can even do it on a smartphone, though the audio quality would be relatively poor and that should only be a method for getting started. You just need a website to host your podcast, which is easily done at Squarespace, so it’s not too involved to actually publish your episodes. The actual recording, editing, and publishing doesn’t take too long at all per episode. If you enjoy having conversations about a particular topic, it’s a ton of fun.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Most of the same challenges with other formats for earning money pop up here. You need to be consistent with it (though you can get away with a pretty infrequent schedule when podcasting), and you won’t earn much money for a while, if ever.

I’ve found that with podcasting, the need for consistent day-in-day-out work is less than with some of the other models discussed here, but it’s actually harder to get income going with it. You basically have to find your own sponsors; if you’re lucky, they’ll find you, but you’ll probably have to go find businesses that would be interested in advertising on a podcast on your topic and work something out with them. At first, it won’t earn you much money, because your rates are wholly dependent on your listenership. You can also use Patreon as an income stream, where your listeners pay you a small amount per episode.

So, while the actual content production of a podcast is relatively easy on a per-episode basis, you do need consistency, and it’s fairly challenging to find people to pay you for doing this, at least compared to other strategies listed here.

Should you do it? If you like the idea of recording a talk radio show on a topic you love, podcasting is a great hobby that can earn an income stream along the way. However, it’s fairly hard to get the ball rolling with this in terms of income generation, though the actual content production isn’t incredibly hard. I found podcast content to be the easiest to produce (after blogging) among the options here.

Ebooks

Another strategy for building some side income for yourself is to write ebooks and sell them, either through Amazon’s Kindle store or through other venues, including your own. You simply write a book on your computer, edit it so that it’s worth reading, format it correctly, and upload it (assuming you’re using the Kindle store). It’s then listed on the Kindle store and people can buy it, download it, and read it.

Why it works well as an income stream: This is very much a “work at your own pace” kind of side gig. You can write and edit at whatever pace you like. Once you do upload a book, it’s there for good and will be found by people searching through the Kindle store thereafter. There’s virtually no up front cost, either.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Your book basically won’t sell at all on its own. You have to promote it, perhaps more than any other option here. If you want it to consistently start selling and to build up a following who will consistently buy your ebooks, you’ve got to get the word out there about your books, and that starts with writing great descriptions for your book, finding lots of online communities to actively participate in, and talking about your stuff there in a non-spammy way. That’s a lot of additional work. I’ve personally found that promoting ebooks takes more promotional work than the other avenues here.

So, while the actual writing is probably the least intense option among the ones listed here, the work needed to promote the books is quite large in order to be successful.

Should you do it? Do you like to write long-form items like books or novellas? If that sounds appealing to you, this is a great avenue to do just that. Just be aware that in order to make significant money from this, you have to be willing to invest significant time in promoting your books. They’re not going to make a mint all by themselves.

Standalone Websites

Standalone websites are websites that serve as an information resource about a specific topic. Typically, these websites are supported by ads and exist solely to serve up detailed information about some relatively narrow topic that people might be interested in that isn’t really covered elsewhere. For example, you might make a website that offers detailed notes on all of the hiking trails at a national park near where you live or offers up detailed notes on how to get started with a particular niche hobby. Once you make such a website, you’d simply promote it a little and mostly look for ways to get it linked to from other sites in order to start welcoming visitors from Google, who will view the ads and earn revenue for your site.

Why it works well as an income stream: Once you actually have such a site established, it requires very little irregular work to keep earning income and even slowly grow that income. A website that’s bringing in Google traffic tends to keep bringing it in provided you update the site every once in a while with fresh info, which you can do irregularly. Hosting websites like this is extremely cheap, as almost any web host is up to the task. You can also sell sites once they start earning income if you want to completely get out of the equation, which is harder to do with other opportunities. That’s the big advantage of using this as a money making tactic.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: It takes a lot of time to make a website with a bunch of pages that thoroughly covers a niche topic. You need some basic web design skills, too. After that, you’re going to invest a ton of time trying to get some links to that site built up, especially from reputable places. All of this occurs before you earn a dime and while you’re paying for site hosting for your site.

For this to really work, you need to have some writing skills and motivation, some limited web design skills, and a strong desire to self-promote, a mix of things that many people don’t have, and you’ll also need to be willing to dump in a lot of up-front time, though it doesn’t need to be regular time.

Should you do this? If you’re interested in writing some detailed guides to specific topics, building standalone websites is a great avenue for this. Just be aware that it is a fairly slow process to make it profitable. This is a good route if you find yourself with bursts of time here and there to devote to it rather than consistent time.

‘Chore Synergy’ Businesses

What if you don’t want to do any sort of online business? Most real-world businesses usually require a ton of consistent time, which make them a nonstarter when it comes to very busy people. The only approach that seems to work well in a busy lifestyle is what I call “chore synergy” businesses; things you can do that synergize really well with things you’re already doing.

For example, if you walk your dog for a mile or two every day, simply picking up some dogs along that route, walking a big loop, and then returning them would just extend your dog walk a little bit and earn you some money. A door-to-door laundry service that’s along your work commute would allow you to pick up laundry and drop it off during your commute, do it at home, and then return it in the mornings before work, again right along with your commute. The idea is to “synergize” things you’re already doing.

Why it works well as an income stream: It involves a relatively low time commitment, as it usually just increases the time you spend on something you’re already doing. Once you have some clients, it’s actually a rather effortless way to earn more money. Most of these types of businesses involve very little cost to you outside of the time and energy involved.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: You have to have a good idea that people actually want, then you have to promote that idea, then you usually have to actually execute that idea, all before you ever see a dime. You will have to worry about things like billing and so forth. You’ll also be expected to consistently stick with the task you’re promising to fulfill and any time you step away from it, you’ll have to clearly notify your clients or else drop the business. It won’t earn any residual income if you step away, whereas the other options will.

Should you do it? If you can identify a task that you can synergize really well, like a laundry delivery service or a dog-walking business or a basic lawn mowing service, and you’ll actually enjoy adding more of that task to your life, then a synergistic chore business might be a really good fit for you. If you loathe your household chores, avoid this one like the plague.

Final Thoughts

If you look through this list, you’ll see that many of the ideas have some things in common. They tend to involve a lot of work at your own pace that won’t earn a lot of income up front, but can build into something that earns good money over the long haul if you’re patient. They tend to have very little up-front cost, so that if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have a deep financial investment. They tend to be able to produce some level of residual income if you walk away from them for an extended period or for good.

All of those are factors that work well for making a side gig for busy people, particularly the “low up-front financial investment” and the “work at your own pace but consistently” aspects of it. I have obviously found success with The Simple Dollar following this pattern and I’m currently exploring projects in almost all of these areas.

If any of these sound interesting to you, start by writing up a side gig business plan for that idea. Use that opportunity to figure out the ins and outs of actually pulling off what you have in mind in terms of how to actually do it, what the real time commitment is, and whether you could fit it into your life. Be sure to consider the drawbacks I’ve discussed here and how you will overcome them, as well as other drawbacks you discover.

You may just find that a side gig does fit well in your busy life and it can provide another income stream for you.

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Why You Should Never Feel Bad for Chasing the Money

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I have had a wild ride the past couple of years, career-wise. I went from making just $22,000 per year working in the mailroom of a Hollywood talent agency to making far more than that at my current job at a startup.

Sure, I had to sell my soul and give up my artistic dreams, but that’s a small price to pay for a big raise, right?

I joke about selling my soul, but it’s something I actually think about. I was committed to making it as a TV writer, and now I pretty much do sales at my main gig. For a few months after making the decision to pursue a career with more immediate financial rewards, the thought that I was a “sellout” gnawed at me.

I imagined a younger version of myself, upon hearing that I’d taken a more corporate job, saying something like, “Good job, quitter. Have fun selling widgets the rest of your life.”

I think these are common, natural feelings for a 20-something to have after realizing that they’re making a career shift away from the creative and toward the traditional. The good part is that, after a while, the negative thoughts subside. And when they do, you’ll have the time to analyze your decision with more clarity. If you’re like me, you might come to the conclusion that you’re only a sellout if you think you’re a sellout.

Recognize That You Are Always Changing

Before I was trying to make it as a TV writer, I was trying to be a professional basketball player. And I succeeded! For three years, I actually got paid money to play a sport, which for many people would be a dream come true. But, I was never satisfied. I wanted to make the NBA. I felt like a failure.

When I eventually stopped playing basketball, I felt like I was giving up. Instead of realizing that I’d accomplished a lot and had much to be proud of, I wallowed in self-pity and stressed myself out thinking about my next career move.

But, as they always do, those feelings passed. I started to feel better about myself as I dove into the task of finding a job that would help me pursue my new passion: Becoming a big-time Hollywood writer.

There’s nothing wrong with that goal. I really believed at the time that TV writing was the path for me. My mistake, though, was not being able to apply the lessons I’d learned from ending my basketball career once I decided to end my TV writing career as well.

Rather than beating myself up for not pursuing the life of a starving artist, I should have been able to look at things more pragmatically. I mean, I’d pretty much gone through the exact same situation already with basketball!

But, I found that it’s hard for me to move on from pursuing lofty, shoot-for-the-moon-type career goals. And I’m sure it’s the case for many others out there as well.

The main thing I keep telling myself is that it’s okay to change. I’m happy I didn’t have all the same goals, principles, and dreams at age 12 that I did at age 18. Why is it such a big deal if I encountered similar changes between the ages of 22 and 24, or 25 and 28?

Your 20s are bound to be a time of growth, questioning, and reassessment. It’s better to embrace that than to stubbornly stick with Activity X because you were so sure you wanted to be the best in the world at Activity X a few years ago.

You’ll eventually want to settle on a set of core values and principles that matter more than anything, but it’s okay if takes you some work and some time to get there. I never appreciated that.

Trent made a great point along these lines a few months back, when he highlighted a quote by the philosopher Alan Watts: “You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.”

Don’t Fall Victim to ‘Fading Affect Bias’

A problem I faced after leaving my old career was that I couldn’t stop remembering the good times. There was the the time I won an award for a script I wrote, the time one of my jokes made it into the finished pilot for a show on CBS, and countless positive memories associated with just hanging out with my bosses.

It took some active effort for me to snap out of it and think, “If it was so great, why did I leave?” Then I remember the aspects of the career I wasn’t so enamored with, such as the late nights spent in a dingy edit bay, the countless hours spent on my scripts even though there was no guarantee anyone important would ever read them, and the low wages.

I’ve learned that I’m not alone in emphasizing the positives when looking back on a situation. In fact, there’s even a name for it: The Fading Affect Bias. Studies have shown that across all cultures, bad memories tend to fade faster than good ones. Some researchers think the purging of bad memories could be an evolutionary adaptation to make sure our self esteem stays sufficiently high.

And to that I say: Not all adaptations are universally good across all circumstances. I think when making a big, profound career change — especially leaving a job you once considered your “passion” — you’d do well to remember exactly why you left.

It can help to take some time to write down in a journal your reasons for moving on. Then you can refer back to them the second you start thinking, “If I had just stuck it out a little longer, I’d be writing on Modern Family right now!”

There’s Always Time for Your Hobbies

Just because you’re no longer doing something “fun” for a living doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon your passions. I still write (obviously). I still play basketball (poorly). And the crazy thing is that I genuinely love doing these activities, even though they are now only done in my free time.

If I wanted to, I could have kept writing scripts even after I took my new job. In fact, the one script I wrote that won an award was written during the free time I had at one of my office jobs.

Heck, I could have even kept training for basketball. Just last year a former college basketball player left his job in public radio and signed a professional basketball contract to play in Poland.

The point is, if you really want to pursue something and you aren’t an on-call surgeon raising six kids by yourself, you probably have some time to get good at it and still maintain a day job. In many cases, it just requires rethinking how you spend your downtime: The average American spends four and a half hours a day watching TV and another few hours surfing the web, some of which could no doubt be devoted to a side project or passion.

Money Matters

People like to say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but a now-famous study showed that earning more money does increase happiness — to an extent, before leveling off after around $75,000 per year. Let’s just say low-level European basketball players and entry-level writer’s assistants aren’t very close to reaching that bar.

I’m not trying to imply that people earning below a certain amount of money are going to be less happy. There are people I know in both the careers I abandoned who are perfectly content doing what they love for very little pay.

I’m just saying that in my situation, with mounting student loan debt and the dream of being able to retire before age 70, it was plausible that I could be happier if I pursued a more lucrative career path. I’m very grateful that such avenues were open to me, and I’ve enjoyed learning something new in a different field.

Summing Up

If careers in sports and the arts were easy, everyone would do them. It takes a special kind of dedication to succeed in either arena. I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that it’s okay to not be one of those people. It’s not selling out to do what’s best for you financially, even if that means you end up in a career you would have once considered boring. Who knows, if you pursue your side hustles hard enough maybe they will eventually become your main hustle. In the meantime, take the time to appreciate you have a job at all, and hold your head high as you crank out those widgets.

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Balancing Financial Success and Life’s Big Moments

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A little over a week ago, I responded to a mailbag question from Mary, who was struggling with the decision about whether to go on an expensive trip (that she could afford) with her ailing sister. She was worried about the long-term financial impact of this big expense and was weighing it against doing something with her sister that they had long talked about before her sister became too ill. You might want to go ahead and read the full question and answer before continuing.

My response to Mary was that she should absolutely go on this trip. The reasoning was simple: The entire purpose of being financially responsible is so that life doesn’t stand in your way when those rare, life-altering moments come along, the kinds of moments that leave you with regret for the rest of your years if you let them pass by. Being frugal and living beneath your income level means that when those things come to pass, you’re prepared. It means putting aside the little things that you’ll forget in an hour or in a day or two so that you can step up during the really big moments.

To say I’ve received a lot of feedback from that mailbag entry is an understatement, and virtually all of it was positive and in agreement with my answer. So, why does it merit another post?

Several people who wrote to me in the aftermath of that question were dealing with their own crossroads in life, moments of various kinds where they were unsure what they should do next. Was it smart to take the financially sensible path? Or was this a “key moment” in life where they needed to take the financially risky path and rely on the financial support they’ve built?

Every single one of those questions revolved around situations that seemed less certain than Mary’s trip to France with her sister. One person wanted to buy a restaurant. Another person wanted to buy a houseboat. Yet another person was torn about moving across the country out of love. Literally none of them seemed to be a clear cut “life moment” like Mary and her sister.

This, of course, left me thinking: How does one know whether or not this is a big enough choice in life that one should take the less financially stable path? Sometimes, the situation is like Mary’s situation, where it’s pretty clear that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that needs to happen now or else the opportunity is lost, but many times in life, that’s not the case.

How does one know the difference? How does one make the right choice in those really big moments of opportunity?

First of all, look at the actual likely downside of this choice going badly. If you choose to make the leap and it goes poorly, where does that leave you? It might be tempting to buy a restaurant, but if it doesn’t work out, what will your financial state look like? Will you be able to easily recover? Or does it put you into a bad financial position?

If you quit your job, will you be able to find another one if your endeavor doesn’t work out? Or are you basically exiting your career because it will be tough to find your way back?

Most drawbacks in life are mitigated by making really good choices along the way when things are calm. If you spent your financial life consistently making good decisions and spending less than you earn, then there is much less financial risk in buying that restaurant. If you spent your career constantly building a great reputation and a ton of strong relationships, then there is substantially less risk in making a very unusual career or business choice.

On the other hand, if you’re struggling in a pool of debt, taking a big financial gamble is a huge risk that could easily sink what you have left. If you don’t have a really strong career built up, then taking a big professional gamble has a huge downside.

Here’s the truth: The calm moments of your life are times of preparation for the big moments, so use them that way. The calm moments are when you spend less than you earn and get rid of debts and build a strong financial base. The calm moments are when you build up a strong professional reputation and a great skill set and a huge professional network. In both cases, you do those things so that when the big opportunities come around, you have something to fall back onto if things fall flat and you have the resources to make that choice happen.

Second, ask yourself honestly if this is really a unique opportunity. Great opportunities can grab our attention and convince us that we absolutely have to jump on board with this opportunity, but many opportunities aren’t really all that unique. This is particularly true when it comes to buying something, particularly something that isn’t at an incredibly steep discount.

You may have always dreamed of running a restaurant, but it doesn’t mean that now is the time to make that leap simply because you became aware of a restaurant location for sale. Restaurants go up for sale all of the time and locations can be converted into restaurants as well. You should make this leap when you’re ready, when you have a strong business plan in place and appropriate financial backing. Until then, a restaurant on sale at a discount is just one similar opportunity among thousands and not one you should reroute everything for.

You may have always dreamed of owning a boat, but it doesn’t mean that now is the time simply because you saw a beautiful boat for sale at a decent price. Boats are bought and sold all the time. If you want a boat, plan for it. Save your money and figure out what you can actually spend and deeply understand what you’re looking for so that it’s not a regrettable purchase.

Yes, there may be a special extenuating circumstance or two about this particular situation, but is it really that special or unique? Or is it just attractive to you in this moment when you happen to have the idea floating around in your head?

There will always be another restaurant or another boat, but there will never be another sister.

Third, ask yourself if this specific situation is something you would genuinely regret if you say no. This again comes back to the big purchases or big career decisions or big life decisions and whether they offer anything truly unique or just happen to be both convenient and somewhat compelling.

If you pass on this restaurant, does that mean you’ll never be able to open a restaurant again for the rest of your life? Or does it simply mean you might have to wait for a little while, a calm period in which you can strengthen your business plan or improve your financing?

If you pass on this boat, does that mean you’ll never be able to own a boat in your entire life? Or does it mean that you might have to wait for a while, a calm period in which you can save for that boat and really evaluate what you want and whether it’s truly worth it for you?

If you pass on moving across the country to be with someone you’re in love with at the moment, does that mean that you’ll never be able to fall in love ever again? Does it even mean the end of this relationship?

Mary’s situation was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime situation. It was extremely likely that her sister was not going to live more than another several months, so, yes, the opportunity was not likely to happen again. But what if her sister was going to live for the foreseeable future? Does that mean that if they were excited about a trip to France, they shouldn’t have taken it?

No, it just means that they should have planned for it. The opportunity to travel to France together would come up next summer or the summer after that. They could have saved for it and planned for it and then gone on that trip in a way that produced no worries for their life. The only thing that caused a faster choice was a huge unchangeable deadline.

Finally, consider whether or not there is another approach to the problem. If you’re thinking of buying a restaurant, that means you want to get into the restaurant business. There are a lot of ways to pull that off without just buying the restaurant sitting in front of you. Consider other options for what you’re wanting to do… in fact, writing a business plan might be a much better step at this point than just buying a restaurant.

Ask yourself whether it might make sense for your long-distance romantic interest to move to you, or whether a move might make more sense in several months when you’re sure the relationship will last and you’ve really vetted the other person.

Contemplate other career approaches. Maybe a simple change in employer is a better approach for the short term than simply abandoning a career you’ve invested deeply in.

The point is simple. If you’re at a crossroads, step back and look at all the paths forward rather than locking yourself into one or two of them. You might just find a road less traveled that you didn’t consider before.

Here’s the thing to remember: Financial success gives you more opportunity to take advantage of those key moments in life, but that doesn’t mean you should jump wildly on whatever opportunities cross your path. Take advantage of the calm times in your life to build financial and professional and personal stability so that you can take advantage of those key life moments when they happen, but don’t fly headfirst into everything that comes your way. Step back and take a deep breath and look more deeply at the situation, because throwing everything into something that isn’t really that worthwhile just means you have less opportunity when something truly important comes along.

How will you know when something is truly important? Will you truly regret not taking this opportunity in five or ten years? Is there no other chance to take it, or take anything like it? Is the downside of not taking this opportunity not all that disastrous? And, more than anything, your heart is unquestionably telling you that this is something you need to do, even when your mind is sure? Those are the guideposts to pay attention to.

Good luck!

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Eight Ways to Use Expiring Produce

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Knocking money off your grocery bill may not be easy, but it can be done. By using coupons, planning your meals, and shopping regular sales, it’s not that hard to whittle your food bill down a notch or two.

Still, you can often save even more with a very basic technique: Reducing food waste. By eating leftovers, using up foods before they go bad, and repurposing everyday ingredients, you won’t have to buy as much at the store.

Beyond saving money, reducing waste is also a good move for humanity. By reusing food that’s about to go bad, we can keep good food out of landfills and reduce the constant strain we put on the planet. Around one third – or 1.3 billion metric tons – of food produced for human consumption is wasted around the world each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Sadly, fruits and vegetables – the very foods that provide the bulk of our nutritional needs – are the most likely to end up in the trash.

While we can’t change global trends, we do have some power over what happens in our own homes. Here are eight ways to reuse, repurpose, or save expiring produce so it doesn’t end up in your local landfill:

#1: Make vegetable soup.

Vegetable soup is a great catch-all for your expiring veggies – and they don’t even need to start wilting all at once. Just keep a large Ziploc bag in your freezer and add to it whenever you’ve got produce that’s about to go bad. That way, you’ll have a great start to your soup when you’re ready.

Each time a vegetable – tomato, carrot, zucchini, onion, etc. – gets to the point where it only has a few days left, take the time to wash it, cut it up, and throw it in your freezer bag. The next time you’re ready to make soup, simply throw your frozen vegetables in with the rest of your garden goodies. Simmer with vegetable stock and/or tomato juice, add your favorite seasonings, and your soup is good to go.

#2: Add bananas or zucchini to bread or muffins.

Save your zucchini and bananas for bread or muffins. You can add either to almost any dessert bread recipe, and you can freeze them beforehand.

When my summer garden went nuts this summer, I made way too much of this simple zucchini bread recipe. I wouldn’t say it’s healthy, but it is oh-so-good. You can add overripe bananas to any banana bread recipe of your choosing, or even add them to a premade banana bread mix from the store.

#3: Make a smoothie.

Smoothies are a great way to use – and hide – your expiring produce. The key, as above, is freezing your produce before it expires, washing it, then cutting it up ahead of time.

Add your favorite fruits and vegetables together in a blender along with some soy milk, almond milk, or yogurt. Mix and add ingredients like honey or frozen fruit until it reaches your ideal flavor and consistency, then suck it down it right away.

Also keep in mind that smoothies offer a wonderful opportunity to trick your kids into eating nutrient-rich vegetables. Throw some kale or spinach into a delicious smoothie and they’ll never know.

#4: Start a compost bin.

Composting is a great way to put your already expired produce to good use. If you can’t consume it, you might as well use it to create vitamin-rich soil for future veggies.

Many people start a simple compost bin using a medium-size trash can, but you can buy compost-specific containers online. Either way, mixing your expired produce with grass clippings, leaves, and other plant material will help break it down into fertilizer you can use in your home garden.

#5: Start juicing.

Juicing is yet another great way to put all your fruits and vegetables to good use. I have an Omega brand masticating juicer, which I mostly use to juice vegetables with some lemons and limes thrown in.

This is yet another way to use produce that can get your kids involved. It’s amazing what kids will drink when you add a tiny bit of fruit for sweetness.

Whenever we have expiring produce and I’m in the mood to juice, I’ll whip up something tasty for the entire family to drink. Most of the time, my juice blends include a mix of green vegetables (kale, bok choy, spinach, dark lettuce, etc.) with carrots and an apple or a lemon. My kids love it, and so do I.

#6: Pickle expiring cucumbers and onions.

This summer, my husband and I pickled a bunch of cucumbers with onions when a rush of our fresh vegetables came due all at once. First, I made “noodles” out of the cucumbers and onions with my vegetable spiralizer. Then, I covered them with a mixture of sugar, vinegar, and spices. It was absolutely delicious, and it helped the veggies stay fresh longer.

There are a ton of different ways to do this, but I used Martha Stewart’s recipe for pickled onions and cucumbers.

#7: Clean and freeze berries and grapes.

Getting your kids to eat fruit is easy, and adults tend to love fresh fruit, too. Unfortunately, produce like apples, grapes, and blueberries can go bad quickly.

Keep an eye on your fresh fruit so you can act before it goes bad. Right before it expires, wash it and freeze it for later. From there, you can add fresh frozen fruit to your smoothies, your morning cereal, or yogurt. My kids will also snack on frozen blueberries and grapes by themselves any time of the year.

#8: Get out your dehydrator.

A basic food dehydrator is a great tool to have if you want to reduce the amount of fresh produce you waste. With a dehydrator, you can make healthy snacks like apple and banana chips.

I tend to use my dehydrator in spurts, and mostly for apple chips. The best part about it is, the only prep you need to do is wash your produce and cut it into even, thin slices. Once you prep your fruits and stack them in your food dehydrator, you just turn it on and you’re done.

To Save Food, Be Proactive

Any one of these strategies can help you reduce waste and make the most of the food you buy. Still, it’s important to be proactive and think ahead if you want to use expiring produce before it goes bad.

If you wait too long to check, you’ll have mushy, rotten produce on your hands. While you can still throw that in the compost pile to get some use out of it, you’ll be better off if you can eat the food you buy.

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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Wealth Is Not a Route to Happiness. What Is?

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I recently read a great article by Peter Singer on the general topic of effective altruism entitled The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle, which was originally published in New Internationalist. In the article, Singer’s primary focus is on personal happiness and whether helping others is aligned with it. The article contained a key quote that really stood out at me:

“We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfillment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.”

The idea that happiness doesn’t increase with income once you have a certain level of income (and, by many measures, it actually declines) is something I’ve talked about before on The Simple Dollar. A few years back, I wrote about a well known research study by Daniel Kahneman that a family income above about $75,000 per year (adjusted for income, of course) does not bring any additional happiness whatsoever and, in many cases, actually results in a slight decrease in happiness.

The reason is easy: once all of your needs are met and many of your desires are met, you’re at a crossroads. You can begin to chase desires that produce smaller and smaller returns in your life at a cost of putting more and more pressure on your career, which ends up at best producing neutral happiness. Or you can seek out other approaches.

This is a crossroads I’ve found in my own life. Sarah and I worked hard to achieve some level of financial security in our life over the past ten years. We paid off our student loans and our mortgage incredibly quickly and we found ourselves at the point I described above. We could meet all of our needs. We could fulfill a lot of our basic wants.

What’s next after that? Let’s dig in.

Finding Happiness in More

One route forward from this point is to keep pushing to fulfill lesser and lesser wants. We could own things like a constant cycle of new cars and new gadgets. We could go on spectacular trips. We could enjoy a ton of great meals at restaurants. It sounds good, right?

Often, these wants were incredibly expensive and, yes, sometimes we fell into those traps. We would prioritize a really expensive vacation, for example, over a low cost one. We went to Disney World instead of going to a national park. We looked at expensive household items. We spent more on our hobbies, buying things that were very much in the realm of “more and better versions of stuff we already have.”

We realized pretty quickly that in general these things might bring short bursts of joy, but they didn’t really bring anything that was long lasting. Sure, we have memories of our Disney World vacation, but we also have great memories of our summer vacation spent camping in Door County or at Gooseberry Falls, too. Sure, we have a lot of neat things for our hobbies, but I still spend a lot of my actual hobby time reading books from the library or playing some of our favorite board games that we’ve owned for many years or making some sort of complex recipe using tools we’ve had since we were first married.

This isn’t to say that all such expenses aren’t worth it, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Finding Happiness in Less

The other route was to simply preserve what we have and push ourselves toward ever more personal freedom within that space. In other words, we started working for financial independence and early retirement. Our goal wasn’t to keep pushing up our relative lifestyle, but to stick at our current lifestyle and instead stock our retirement savings so heavy that we could walk away from our work much earlier than we might have otherwise.

In other words, we make a concerted effort to lock in our lifestyle at a certain level and keep it there, and when extra income arrives, we use it to preserve that lifestyle rather than expand it.

What that means is that rather than buying a new car every three years (or leasing one), we buy cars and drive them until they’re about to completely wear out. Instead of going on a huge summer vacation and “getaways” every few months, we go on a modest family summer vacation that’s still fun and memorable. Instead of buying everything we could possibly want for our hobbies, we own modest bicycles and (mostly) reasonable collections of hobby items. Instead of having a huge house in the country, we have a modest house on the edge of a small town that provides plenty of room for us and our stuff.

Through the Lens of Vacations

Let me expand on this a little bit using the vacation example above. In 2014, my family went on a summer vacation throughout the Southeast that culminated in five days spent at Disney World. We took my parents along on the trip, as they had never seen the Southeast of the United States at all and this would give us all some great bonding time.

It was an expensive trip, no doubt about it. Our final total bill for the whole trip was several thousand dollars. (Remember, we have three children and were also taking my parents along for the ride, too, and the vacation was fairly long.) We all deeply enjoyed ourselves and had tons of memories.

The next summer, we camped in Door County in Wisconsin at a pretty ordinary campground. We explored a ton of trails, visited lighthouses and forests, and spent some time in Green Bay doing things like visiting the city’s free zoo. On that trip, we all deeply enjoyed ourselves and have tons of memories from that trip.

The difference? The trip to Door County cost several thousand dollars less than the trip to Disney World.

The Door County model is the one we’re adopting for most of our summer vacations going forward. This summer, for instance, we’re going to drive to Yellowstone and camp there, visiting Badlands National Park on the way. We’re using the program that gives every fourth grader in America a national parks pass for their family. The entire trip will be a tiny fraction of the cost of the Disney World trip – I’ve already budgeted for it.

There’s nothing that we deeply want that these types of more modest vacations don’t fulfill. Going on huge elaborate trips would merely fulfill some relatively small wants at a huge price tag.

Through the Lens of Housing

During the early years of our marriage, our big shared dream was to own a giant house in the country with a small barn and plenty of room for our kids to roam and explore. We designed floor plans and talked about the attributes of the land we’d like to buy.

As we had children and our incomes and financial state became more stable, one might expect that we were building toward this goal, but what we came to realize is that the modest home on the edge of a small town that we currently lived in actually met all of our needs and many of our wants quite well.

It has plenty of room for all of us. It’s close enough to a grocery store and a library that I can walk or bike to both of them. We all have friends that live literally a stone’s throw from our house. It has a big basement and garage for ongoing projects and storage.

There’s nothing that we need or deeply want that this house doesn’t fulfill. Buying a big house in the country would merely fulfill some relatively small wants at a huge price tag.

Through the Lens of Hobbies

I have several hobbies that could easily turn into huge expenses if I allowed that to happen. I enjoy home brewing and the cost of home brewing equipment can basically go as high as you want it to until you’re basically building a microbrewery in your garage. I enjoy riding my bicycle around town (both with and without my family), and it would be easy to invest thousands in a bicycle. I enjoy reading books and it would be easy to have an enormous library of books (in fact, I sometimes slip into that trap). I can go on and on like this.

Here’s the thing, though: many of these hobbies eat up only a small sliver of my free time. I don’t have a ton of free time to pursue hobbies and the time I have is pretty precious to me, so I’m selective on how I spend it. If I’m choosing to not spend my free time on a particular hobby in any significant amount, why should I spend my extra money on a particular hobby in any significant amount?

It’s that logic that keeps me from buying an expensive bicycle or turning my garage into a miniaturized microbrewery. The only area where I’m challenged by that logic is with my core hobbies, the ones that eat most of my hobby hours in a week: reading books and playing tabletop games.

In both cases, I do slip up and spend more on those hobbies than I should, but when I actually reflect on them, I realize that even in those hobbies, spending more pretty much always leads to diminishing returns in joy within the hobby paired with less money for other life goals. A new book when I have nothing new to read is a real joy; a new book when I have fifteen unread books at home and I’ve got a few on reserve from the library really doesn’t bring much to the table. A new board game when I’ve played everything on my shelf is amazing; a new board game when I have five on my shelf that are unplayed and a bunch more that I want to play many more times isn’t really all that great.

I’ve learned, over time, that with my core hobbies, I’m better off collecting experiences rather than stuff. I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the games I’ve played and I realize I actually get more joy from adding things to that list than from adding books and games to my collections.

Finding Your Happiness Without Diminishing Returns

One pattern that’s pretty obvious from all of these experiences – and something you’ve probably observed in your own life – is that once you reach a certain point, investing more money in it brings diminishing returns in terms of happiness. Even if I had all of the money in the world, I’m going to get far more joy for my dollar out of a book if I have nothing else to read than if I have a bunch of unread books on my bookshelf, so it makes sense to read those unread books first before buying a new one. I’m going to get far more joy for my dollar out of a modest vacation (like camping in a national park and making my own meals over a campfire) than an elaborate one (like, say, going to Disney World or going to London).

That’s not to say that the more expensive options aren’t going to bring me more total joy from the experience. They probably will, honestly. The difference is that once I creep above a base level of spending, the joy I get out of it doesn’t increase at the same rate; it slows down.

If I can spend $1,000 on a family summer vacation and get 75% of the enjoyment that I would out of a summer vacation that I spent $10,000 on, then the $1,000 seems like a better option. If I can spend $50 a month on a hobby and get 75% of the joy that I would get compared to spending $500 a month on a hobby, then that $50 seems like a better option.

Furthermore, the more you spend on something, the greater the financial impact on the rest of your life. Whenever you spend more money, you have to either cut back in other areas, sink into debt, or push yourself to earn more money. Those are really the only three options out there that don’t rely on some kind of outside luck.

To me, that kind of financial pushback is a negative, one that eats up some of the diminishing returns. I might enjoy that trip to France more than that trip to Yellowstone, but that enjoyment isn’t five times as much, and when I go to France I do have this vague financial worry in my mind that doesn’t exist with the trip to Yellowstone. That financial concern further erodes any “joy advantage” that the more expensive option has.

I’ve actually talked about this very concept of diminishing returns of joy and fulfillment before. I like to use the term that Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin use for the concept – the “fulfillment curve.” In an earlier article, I quoted their book Your Money or Your Life on the subject:

“One of the deep problems of consumerism is that the average American tends toward buying more. They would rather have more stuff that, per item, they have less time to enjoy than less stuff that, per item, they have more time to enjoy.

This is connected directly with the clutter problem, also discussed here. This tendency to buy extra luxury items gradually fills a home with lots of clutter – unnecessary stuff that just sits there taking up space when the money invested could be used to help build a more fulfilling life.”

So, what is that “more fulfilling life”?

Addressing “Emptiness and Lack of Fulfillment”

Let’s go back to that quote from Peter Singer that started this article:

“We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfillment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.”

So far, we’ve clearly covered that consumption above a certain point brings rapidly diminishing returns in terms of joy and happiness, possibly even being completely counteracted (or more) by the relative cost of that more expensive option. Yet, in so many ways, our culture encourages us to chase that sense of “more and better.” I’ve certainly fallen prey to it at times. It’s easy to sometimes have a sense that buying that “better” thing or going for that “better” experience will bring a deep joy that I don’t currently have. Time and time again, it really doesn’t do that at all; sure, it might happen in the short term, but it rarely lasts, and it very rarely happens in the long term with enough quality to make up for that larger cost.

The key, then, is to find sources of lasting happiness and fulfillment that don’t involve buying more and “better” experiences and things.

I don’t have some magic recipe for this. I can tell you what makes me happy and brings me fulfillment – spending time with my family, learning new things, challenging my mind, exploring nature, and so on – but that doesn’t tell you what makes you happy and brings you fulfillment. It is something you have to find for yourself. All I can really do is tell you how I found those things in my own life.

One big thing that has always helped me is reflecting on and writing down my thoughts each day. I make sure to write down the best things that happened that day, which means I have to think back through my day and look at what really brought me joy. When did I feel happiest that I clearly remember?

The funny thing is, when I reflect at the end of the day, I usually don’t remember the burst of temporary joy I get from buying something or receiving something in the mail. What I remember is something like laughing with my oldest son while playing a game with him, or that feeling I had when I realized I had been lost in working on a task and when I became aware of how much time had passed, I felt great and had produced a ton of good work.

Each week or so, I like to go back through those things and see which ones continued to stick with me. Again, I find some very common patterns in the things that brought me joy that continues to resonate. They tend to involve my family. They tend to involve learning and mentally challenging myself. They often tend to involve nature. They often tend to involve achieving or completing something that I’ve invested my time and energy into. Again, those are things that resonate with me, not necessarily with you, but you’ll discover what things resonate with you by doing this regularly.

By doing that over a long period of time – I’ve literally been doing this for years on a nearly daily basis and weekly basis – you can start to see some patterns in terms of what makes you happy. When you start to see those patterns in terms of what brings you lasting, memorable happiness, you can shape your life to include more of those things and less of other things.

The thing is, literally every person I’ve ever talked to who has done something like this has discovered that the things that brought them lasting joy rarely had much cost involved at all. Sure, they sometimes found lasting joy in things that were expensive, but they just as often found it in something that was free.

Why Be Frugal or Earn More, Then?

If the “secret to happiness” isn’t found through money, then what’s the purpose of trying to earn more money or to be frugal? If you earn enough to meet your needs and a few wants and you find joy in the life you already have, why be frugal? Why earn more?

I have two answers for that: security and opportunity. When you bring in more money without expanding your spending, you add both security and opportunity to your life.

You enhance the security of the life you’ve built by having money on hand to handle life’s unexpected events and emergencies. Bad events are less likely to knock your life for a loop. If you earn more than what you need to spend to be consistently happy, then you can use that extra money to protect yourself against things like a job loss or an illness or a car breakdown, things that would disrupt that happiness.

Once you have good security, having more money on hand increases opportunity. It leads to things like the possibility of retiring early or of changing careers without having an abrupt change in your lifestyle. You can try something new with your whole life for a while without worrying so much about making ends meet and whether you can financially do it. If you’re already in a career you’re pretty happy with, you can push toward retiring early, which can either let you truly retire and pursue other things without a financial objective, or make career choices that aren’t financially wise but are more fulfilling to you (like, for instance, leaving your stable engineering job to jump into a truly exciting startup, or getting out of your current job to avoid the world’s worst boss).

Both security and opportunity bring happiness. Security brings happiness when something unexpected happens; knowing that this job loss won’t kill your lifestyle for years is an enormous relief compared to the alternative. Opportunity brings bundles of happiness because you feel much more in control of your own destiny.

Final Thought

If there’s one take-home message in this article, it’s this: spending more money won’t bring more happiness. The things that bring happiness are probably already in your life or already within your power to grasp. If you’re not sure what those things are, spend some time discovering them, and when you do know, fill your life with those things. Earning more money and being more frugal is still useful, though, because it increases the security of that life and the opportunities available to you, giving you more control than you might otherwise have.

I don’t know what your path to happiness looks like, but I hope that you can discover it and that when you do find it, you let it lead you to a great life.

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Want Your Free Credit Score? More Credit Cards Are Willing to Give it to You

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If you’re searching for your credit score, you can put your wallet away, because you’re not going to need it. In recent years credit scores have become easier for consumers to access free of charge. Numerous websites give away free scores if you’re willing to read marketing emails from time to time. And, several large lenders and credit card issuers are also giving away free credit scores each month to their customers simply for being a cardholder.

The free credit score giveaways by credit card companies is a trend that has been growing for several years. And the momentum of free scores continues, all to the benefit of consumers. So, if you’re interested in seeing your FICO or VantageScore credit scores, you probably don’t have to look very hard.

Why Do Credit Card Issuers Have Your Credit Scores in the First Place?

It’s worth pointing out that your credit card issuers aren’t simply purchasing your credit scores to share them with you out of a sense of altruism. Your credit card issuers were most likely already accessing your credit score each month, and using that score for account management purposes, which is a very common practice.

Many of the card issuers who offer free credit scores to their customers are now simply sharing the scores they already purchased. So, it’s a secondary use of the same data.

Unlike most other lenders, your credit card issuers don’t just care about how you’re managing your specific account with them; they’re also concerned with the rest of the accounts on your credit reports.

Credit card issuers are loaning money to you repeatedly, not just once like when you take out a mortgage or auto loan. So if the condition of your credit deteriorates in the future – whether due to late payments, new collections, or other credit problems — then your card issuer may want to change the terms of your account, or perhaps even stop doing business with you altogether. That’s why they’re constantly accessing your credit score information.

Your Scores May Be Different, But That’s Fine

Because you have dozens of FICO and VantageScore credit scores, the score your card issuer shares with you may be different from the credit scores you pulled online or the scores you received when another lender checked your credit. You might even receive free credit scores from multiple credit card issuers and find that those scores don’t match either. Yet, seeing a difference in credit scores is entirely normal.

All of your credit scores are based on the same data, which is the information contained in your credit reports. If you focus on maintaining responsible credit management habits, then your credit scores should improve or continue to remain in great shape, regardless of what lender is accessing them or giving them away to you monthly.

Additionally, if the free credit scores your card issuers share with you continue to climb month after month, then all the credit scores you don’t see with regularity are most likely improving as well.

Which Credit Cards Give Away Free Credit Scores?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently published a list of card issuers who provide free credit scores to at least some cardholders, to make it easier for consumers to identify whether any of their card issuers participate.

Some big names you’ll recognize on the list include Bank of America, Barclaycard, Capital One, Chase, Citibank, Discover, US Bank, and Wells Fargo, among others. The CFPB says it released the list in an effort to “raise awareness of how consumers can access and use their credit scores to help manage their financial lives.”

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John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books on the topic and has been interviewed and quoted thousands of times over the past 10 years. With time spent at Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 230 credit related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit.

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Questions About Life Insurance, Kindle Books, Bicycles, Green Onions and More!

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What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Term or whole life insurance
2. Inexpensive and free Kindle books
3. US banking for Canadian residents
4. REI dividend update
5. Landscaping question
6. Investing policy like business plan?
7. Applying for job at megacorp
8. DIY fermented foods cost effective?
9. Recommendations for bicycle commuting
10. Regrowing green onions
11. The incredible shrinking numbers
12. When to throw things away?

A few days ago, my oldest son suddenly became fascinated with buying a new LEGO kit that he saw at the store. He had been saving money for another goal for a while, so this sudden switch somewhat surprised me. I encouraged him to give it a little bit of time and think about it first, but that it was okay to change goals if you give it some thought.

I was surprised because his interests had changed. He went through a multi-year phase in his life when he used to put together LEGO kits all the time and that’s all he wanted for his birthday or for Christmas, but over time he found himself spending less and less time on them. His last few LEGO kits from Christmas this past year were unfinished.

Later on that day, I asked him why he had changed his mind on the subject and his answer was interesting. He said he still thought of himself as a fan of LEGOs even though he hadn’t been putting together or modifying any kits recently, and when he was in the store he realized that it had kind of faded away from him. I asked him if he felt like part of who he thought he was was suddenly missing and he said yeah. Then I asked him if he felt like buying that LEGO kit would bring back what was missing and after fifteen seconds or so he said yeah.

I told him very gently that it’s okay to change and grow as a person and that he will probably do that for his entire life. Sometimes interests will fade over time and that’s okay, and you can tell what your real interests are by the time you actually spend on them. I told him that it was backwards to spend money on hobbies that you aren’t actively trying to spend time on and that the time you spend should lead your hobby spending. If you’re not spending time on something any more, then you shouldn’t spend any money on it either and just let that hobby go. It’s the time you spend that really matters.

He understood that. When we got home, he got out a LEGO kit from Christmas and finished it, but when I asked him later if he still wanted to buy that new LEGO kit that he saw at the store, he said no.

(I’m an admirer of LEGOs as a toy, by the way. This is just a tale to illustrate changing interests.)

Just some food for thought for today. Let’s get on with some reader mailbag questions.

Q1: Term or whole life insurance

Term or whole (IUL)? Will search if you have something. Why are these tools sold and how do these agents believe this stuff? I guess the real question is what is really the smart move? You can find as many articles arguing both sides. Will see what i can find from your archives. I am getting term but I question my cousin-in-law about the advantages of IUL’s and usually his answers are vague with guarantees sprinkled in. Basically too good to be true. Will i always earn interest, yes. Will my beneficiary get paid out the full amount? Yes. Can you give me the fees? Well it varies for each package. Googling is no better. I found one agent who argued IUL bad. Whole is great.
– Alex

For those curious, IUL refers to Indexed Universal Life insurance. This kind of insurance policy contains an investment component. When you buy such a policy, it includes a small life insurance policy, but the package is also tied to some kind of investment – in this case, the stock market, usually. When the stock market goes up, a proportional amount of those gains are put into your “account” that you’re allowed to use with various restrictions. When the market goes down, you get nothing.

The catch here, of course, is the “proportional” part. Most such packages have an upper limit on annual returns, meaning that if your upper limit is 10% and the stock market jumps 20%, you only get 10%. Even on years where it’s below 10%, you’re often only getting a percentage of the actual gains – a 12% stock market return might only put 8% in your account.

Now, in a period between 2009 and 2017, where the stock market has consistently gone up and up and up, salespeople can make some really great claims about this account. Look at all the returns! What they rarely show you is a direct comparison to the index they’re matching that includes all of the caps and fees that come along with the package.

I do not recommend whole life or universal policies based on the structure of them alone. It’s the equivalent of buying your investments from a middleman who stacks on some fees and doesn’t offer you anything other than a little bit of upfront convenience. I have seen many different sales pitches on whole life and universal policies, both by email and face to face, and they all end up trailing into vagueness when you start digging into specifics. If someone can’t answer your specific questions, don’t put your money in the product. Ever.

Q2: Inexpensive and free Kindle books

You recently mentioned cutting back on buying books to read on your Kindle. Did you know you can borrow e-books to read for free?

Try the OverDrive and Hoopla apps. The apps themselves are free, and borrowing e-books from the library networks that you select is also free. (Movies and audiobooks, too.)
– Denae

Most libraries do have some kind of ebook service that enables readers to download books for their Kindle in various forms. I’ve used these systems and read books from them many times.

What I’ve learned is that the title availability is often pretty limited. If you’re looking for a new release, you probably won’t find it on there. There’s also often a waiting list, much as there is with checking out physical books (because the library only has so many licenses) and they disappear from your device after a certain period of time.

Now, I don’t have any problems with those drawbacks, really, and I’ve checked out more than a few books this way. The challenge comes when you have a specific book in mind that you want to read and the waiting list for a physical copy is 25 people long and it’s not even available digitally. That’s when I find myself drawn to buy a Kindle copy – and it happens fairly often.

Maybe a better routine would be to just not read any books during their first year or so of release…

Q3: US banking for Canadian residents

I was reading some of your reviews online about U.S. banking. We are a Canadian family who own a home in Arizona. We are experiencing issues with regard to Chase bank and their restrictions in accepting $U.S. cheques that are drawn from a Canadian bank. It can take up to 6 weeks to go through a security check before the deposit is finalized and we are not able to use their online deposit tool. All of our cheques are coming from the same account in Canada, yet we run into this problem consistently.

I did check with one of the online banks, Ally, and they advised that they do not accept cheques from Canadian banks at all?

Have you had any experience in dealing with situations similar to ours, and if you have, are there any ‘best solutions’ for us to look at as an option to Chase? I thank you for your time and your reply.
– Mary

Over the last several years, a number of new laws have come into effect that make banking across the US border more difficult for everyone, regardless of citizenship. Almost all transactions across the border receives a great deal of scrutiny. Many banks simply won’t deal with the hassle and those that do generally have long waiting periods, as you notice.

The only exception to this is that some very large banks will hasten things for familiar customers, but that seems to be entirely at their discretion and they seem to be just fronting the money in order to provide better service to a frequent or high valued customer.

In other words, you’re not alone, not at all, and there isn’t really a way around it. Your best bet is to use a bank that also operates in Canada, which you are, as many smaller banks are even worse with regards to handling international checks.

Q4: REI dividend update

I saw in your mailbag that you answered a question about the REI Dividend.

If someone lives near a store, they can get their dividend in cash by just waiting until July 1 — https://www.rei.com/membership/benefits#faqs

I usually get my dividend this way rather than putting it toward products even though I shop at REI with some frequency as I’d rather get the 10% back on my new purchases (which you don’t get if you use the dividend itself).
– Mark

That’s some good advice, Mark!

If you have REI dividends, it’s worth noting that using that dividend as store credit means that you won’t earn a 10% dividend on that money. So, let’s say you go to a REI store and you have a $40 dividend there and you spend it as store credit on a $60 purchase. Only the $20 you actually pay out of pocket earns that 10% dividend, so you’ll come away with just a $2 dividend.

However, if you wait until July and get a cash payout of your dividend, you’re fine. You could (theoretically) use that cash to then buy something from REI and get the 10% dividend on that money.

So, it probably makes sense to wait until July, cash out your dividend in the store, then spend that cash instead of using it as store credit.

Q5: Landscaping question

Spring is here, so I wanted to get your thoughts on the value of landscaping purchases. You see, I’ve never really liked the flower bed in the front of my house.

Part of me wants want to rip everything out and make it look more professional, but the other part is convinced it isn’t worth it to spend hundreds of dollars replacing shrubs and flowers that are perfectly healthy.

Do you see flowers, bushes, trees etc. as a good purchase? What are some ways to bring the costs down?
– Kendra

In terms of dollars and cents, gardens and shrubs and flowers do help boost the curbside appeal and the value of a home, but only to a certain extent. Putting in a pleasant small flower bed or a bush or two where there’s nothing is probably going to be a positive, but replacing one flower bed with another isn’t likely to give much of a property value boost.

Plants that can provide a direct financial benefit for residents include herbs and vegetables, which you can eat, and trees, which over the long haul can provide some shade on the home and reduce heating and cooling costs.

The biggest benefit for you to replace your current gardens is for your own happiness and peace of mind. If it makes your own home better for you and you enjoy the gardening process, then it’s worth it.

Q6: Investing policy like business plan?

Loved your recent article about business plans for side gigs. Completely agree. It’s hard to launch anything well without a good plan in place. Have you ever written about writing an investing policy or investing plan? It would have the same goal bout would talk about your investing plans.
– Danny

A personal investing plan is absolutely a good idea for anyone making investment decisions regarding their future. The goal of such a plan is similar to that of a business plan – you sit down, detail your situation and your goals, figure out how to get from your current situation to your goals, and look for any pitfalls.

Unlike a business plan, there really isn’t any standard format out there for an investment plan. I would definitely include sections covering your current budget and spending, your goal in as much detail as possible (including timeline and budget), a list of investment options that can take you from your current state to your goal, evaluations of the benefits and drawbacks of those options, and a final selection of a particular plan to get there. Then, I’d let that plan rest for a little while and review it again before implementing it. If you have friends who you trust enough to review it, let them review it, too.

This type of process works well for any big decision in your life and it can really guide you well to the best option.

Q7: Applying for job at megacorp

Do you have any advice for applying for jobs at large corporations that require you to fill out a bunch of online forms rather than sending in your resume? It basically makes working on a resume pointless. I absolutely feel like just another number in a database when I’m doing this, too, as though a computer is going to look at my application and automatically discard it for some reason I don’t get.
– Jared

You’re right – much of the job application process for large corporations is managed by algorithms parsing through a database and pulling out good matching applicants for a real person to review. Mostly, this is a filter to get rid of people who aren’t good fits for the position.

The best thing you can do in terms of getting a job with a large corporation is to build relationships with people already there, as internal references often go a very long way in terms of helping a potential candidate make the cut. It’s not a guarantee – nothing is – but it definitely helps.

How do you do that? Your best bet is to get involved in online and (if possible) local groups and communities where people from those companies might be participating and strive to be a positive force in those groups, building lots of relationships there. Almost every career success I’ve had involved either a relationship with a mentor or participation in a group or community.

Q8: DIY fermented foods cost effective?

I’ve been reading a lot about fermented foods lately (things like sauerkraut and kimchi and pickles and kombucha) and I am wondering if it’s cost effective to make them. It seems like it’s cheaper in terms of ingredients to do it at home but then you have to deal with the work involved. Have you done this? Does it save money?
– Gary

I have made all of the items you list above and have extensive experience making most of them (and many other fermented foods). It’s a fun little side hobby of mine and, indeed, it’s far less expensive to make your own sauerkraut than to buy similar quantities at the store. I can turn three heads of cabbage (which is less than $1 in cost) and some salt and a bit of water into about a gallon of sauerkraut (seven or eight pounds of the stuff), for example.

You can get started on a small scale with many of these foods pretty cheaply. You can make tiny batches of sauerkraut in a quart Mason jar, for example – all you need are some ceramic pie weights (you don’t strictly need these, but they drastically reduce the chance of a batch going bad), a lidded Mason jar, a head of cabbage, some salt, and some water. Just cut out a disc of outer thick cabbage leaf that’s a bit wider than the diameter of the jar, then shred the rest. Add a tablespoon of salt to the shredded cabbage, mash it for several minutes with your hands until it’s giving off a lot of water, then fill a glass jar 2/3rds of the way with the mash. Put the cabbage leaf inside the jar, holding down the salty cabbage, and put several pie weights on top of the leaf to push it down. If you don’t have an inch of liquid (at least) above the weights, add two tablespoons of salt to a quart of water and add that salty water mix to the jar until you have at least an inch of clearance above the cabbage. Put a lid on the jar and put it out of the way. Open the jar once a day or so to let it burp as gas will build up in there. (Some people use a cheesecloth or a special lid with a water lock on it.) After two weeks or so, taste it and you should have some good sauerkraut.

If you want to make larger batches, though, it gets expensive quickly. Larger batches made all at once tend to produce enough gas during the ferment that a sealed jar is a REALLY bad idea, so you usually need a crock of some kind. I received a nice five quart ceramic crock with a water lock built into the lid as a gift, but investing in your own food safe crock isn’t particularly cheap. I’d suggest making things like sauerkraut and kimchi in a jar at first to see how it works out for you and whether you want to move to a larger scale.

With kombucha, all you really need is tea, sugar, water, and a bottle of natural kombucha to start with (look for a kind that’s a bit cloudy or even has a bit of growth in it). You just make up a big batch of sweet tea and mix the bottle of kombucha in there. All you really need is a rubber band, a cheesecloth, and a large jar – I make mine in a gallon jar for now – and maybe some bottles to store it in.

Honestly, fermented foods are like any hobby – you can end up investing a lot of money in it. But you don’t have to, especially if you’re willing to stick with small batches of stuff. Plus, you end up producing a lot of foods and beverages for a pittance that would cost you quite a lot at the store. I think it’s a good frugal hobby.

Q9: Recommendations for bicycle commuting

Just moved to a place that’s about 2 1/2 miles from my workplace. About 1 3/4 miles of it is a giant park with bike trails so I am very tempted to start walking to work or biking to work to save money. I can get to work on foot in about 45 minutes without pushing myself hard enough to sweat (which would be messy) but I’m not sure how fast it is on a bike.

Before I make the leap, I have some questions.

1. How expensive is a “good enough” bike for this purpose? I see people spending thousands on bicycles and that just doesn’t seem cost effective for this, but I don’t want a junk bike that just falls apart.

2. My new office is close to a grocery store and a few other shops so part of the reason I am thinking of a bike is to carry stuff home after work. What’s the best (cost effective) way to make it easy to carry some stuff on a bike like a few books or a few days of groceries for myself?

3. You have mentioned biking across town to buy groceries before which is why I decided to ask. What is your setup like?
– James

My honest suggestion for you is to buy a pretty cheap bike at this point. A cheap bike will teach you pretty quickly whether you like doing this over the long haul or not, plus you’ll learn pretty quickly what there is to like and not to like about a bicycle. What features annoy you? You figure that out from experience, and that helps you a lot in terms of picking out a good bike that’s right for you later. Just go to a bike shop and say you want a low-end starter bike or a used bike for short rides to figure out if this is a hobby for you and they’ll point you to a good one.

The best add-on for a bike, in my opinion, is a pannier. A pannier is a basket or bag – usually one of a pair for each side of the bike – that usually hangs from a rack over the rear wheel of the bike. These baskets/bags are easily removable, so you can take them with you when you park your bike. You just install the rack, then put the bag/basket onto the rack and click it into place. Most panniers provide plenty of space to store a few groceries and parcels.

I don’t actually have a pannier. When I go to the store, I usually wear a backpack and just put my items in the pack. I also have a small clip-on basket where I put things I don’t want to get smashed, like bread, but I only put on that basket when I go to the store or on some other errand – it’s not on there the rest of the time. (I would like to have a pannier setup someday, though.)

Q10: Regrowing green onions

Did you know that most of the time you can regrow green onions really easily in any old pot? If you have a pot with some soil in it, buy a green onion at the store, then chop it off down just to the point where it turns white. Chop up the green part finely and use it in your dish, then take the other part and plant it in the soil. The green part will start growing again! You can actually keep trimming off the green part for a long time! It’s a practically free way to add onion flavor to dishes. I keep some growing all the time on my back deck in a pot and I just trim off the tops when I need a bit of onion flavor in a dish.
– Anna

This actually works really well! My wife and I have a very similar setup with chives, which grow perennially in a patch near our back porch. We just cut them short whenever we need chives and often use them as a substitute for onions in a lot of things.

Green onions are just like that. As long as you leave the bulb in the ground (or in a pot), the green portion will keep growing back and can be used in a lot of dishes.

The thing is, you have to like the flavor of the green portion of a green onion. I would definitely encourage people to try it for themselves before planting them and thinking they have an infinite source of onion. The green portion of a green onion has its own distinct flavor and texture that’s like a yellow or white onion, but also pretty distinct.

My suggestion? Buy a few green onions at the store and use the green part in some dishes. I actually like sautéing them and then using the sautéed portions in lots of things. If you like it, then pop a few in the ground and start trimming off the green part as needed. You can do the exact same thing with chives, too!

Q11: The incredible shrinking numbers

Just wanted to share some thoughts with a commenter who seemed overwhelmed by the size of the numbers needed to retire on.

When I was little, $5 seemed like a ton of money. When I was a teenager, $100 seemed like a fortune. During my early career, $1,000 seemed like a mountain of cash. Later on, $10,000 seemed imaginable, and then eventually $100,000 seemed like more than I could imagine.

The more years I spent being smart with my money, the less scary those big numbers seemed. They went from seeming impossible to seeming impressive to seeming reachable to seeming like my investment account balance to seeming like a small part of my investment account balance.

I worked hard to build a career and I spent less than I earned and a lot less than I earned during my last decade or so. The big numbers just kept seeming smaller and smaller the longer I worked at it. (Inflation helped too.)

Keep your chin up and keep making good choices every day. It won’t seem so scary before long.
– Art

I completely agree with Art.

It can seem really disheartening when people are talking about huge numbers, but those numbers don’t seem so huge when you apply the steady pressure of time and effort to them. They wear down.

I actually like the analogy of a rock on the beach. It might seem enormous at one point in time, but over the course of many, many years, the constant force of the waves against it wears it down until it’s nothing more than sand. What once seemed enormous and immovable is now tiny beneath your feet.

That’s what time and consistent effort does to large financial obstacles. They slowly wear down a large rock to nothing.

Q12: When to throw things away?

When you’re cleaning, when do you make the decision to throw things away versus keeping them because they might have a use someday? If you find something that you might be able to sell for a dime at a yard sale at most and Goodwill won’t take it, do you keep it or toss it? How do you decide?
– Dana

My usual strategy is to put things that I’m not sure about in a box and then date and label that box. Anything still in that box a year later can be eliminated without any question, because if I haven’t used it in a year, it doesn’t have much value.

As for the sell it/toss it/Goodwill it conundrum, what I usually do is if I think it has any value at all, I have a yard sale or list it on Craigslist for something cheap, like $0.25 or $0.50 or $1. If I still have it after a week or two, I take it to Goodwill. If I genuinely don’t believe it has any value to anyone, I’ll toss it.

It’s not a perfect system, but I’ve found that it works pretty well for my purposes. I may have tossed a thing or two that I could have sold for a quarter or something, but I really don’t lose any sleep over it.

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

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Five Expenses We Didn’t Have to Deal With in the ’80s

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Remember the ’80s? The stonewashed jeans? Hypercolor t-shirts? The bad hair and cheesy tunes? Punky Brewster, Alf, and Garbage Pail Kids?

If you were a child of the ’80s, you probably wore bright neon colors and tight-rolled your jeans. You watched VHS tapes and recorded songs off the radio with cassette tapes. Your first real introduction to technology was probably Oregon Trail or Nintendo. Heck, some of us wore jelly shoes and worshiped Pee Wee Herman.

And that’s just if you were a kid.

If you were an adult in the ’80s, you probably endured your share of M.C. Hammer and big bangs, too. On the plus side, however, it’s possible you had a lot fewer bills to worry about.

Think about it: Modern technology was in the works in the ’80s, but most gadgets hadn’t become mainstream. Early car phones were the size of a small briefcase, and 1980s-era computers were clunky, slow, and largely colorless. Heck, just Pac-Man was a technological feat!

We could argue all day about whether life was better or worse before the internet, cell phones, and other modern marvels transformed our lives. But there’s no denying the number of new monthly bills people have today. Here are five expenses almost nobody had to factor into their budget just a generation ago.

#1: Cell Phone

While cell phones were technically invented in the 1970s, they didn’t become available to the masses until the ’90s. And those early cell phones were awkward and hardly usable.

Many of us can recall our first cell phones and their crazy usage plans. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was commonplace to pay 10 cents or more per text message, and cell phone usage was billed by the minute — but hopefully your plan offered free calls on nights and weekends.

Nowadays, with our smartphones sucking up expensive wireless data, an average cell phone bill can easily top $100 a month or more, especially for family plans. And it’s totally normal for a new smartphone to cost $600 or more, which many people simply tack on to their monthly bill over the course of two years.

The ability to stream YouTube videos on the bus is pretty amazing when you think about it, but it certainly wasn’t something people paid for in the ’80s, when most families had just a land-based home phone bill to worry about.

#2: Internet Service

The internet didn’t become available to consumers until the ’90s (which is perhaps one reason those of us who grew up in the ’80s spent so much of our childhoods playing outside).

Some of the first internet service providers are history now — remember Prodigy? Netscape? The pages loaded so slowly, the internet was hardly worth using back then. And obviously, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube, either.

The internet has changed our world in too many ways to count, but it’s also added a new burden to the 21st-century budget. The average internet bill has been climbing steadily, reaching $47.30 a month at last count, according to a 2015 analysis by Quartz.

This monthly expense is one that appeared out of thin air once the internet took hold, but it affects nearly everyone and shows no sign of disappearing.

#3: Cable TV (or Netflix & Hulu)

While cable television reached major markets in the 1970s, many households didn’t even bother with cable TV until the mid- to late-’80s or ’90s. Instead, people relied on old-school antennas that helped them access local broadcast stations and news networks.

In 1980, there were only 16 million cable TV subscribers in America, and they paid about $7.50 a month ($22 in today’s dollars) for the service — typically a very basic package with 20 some-odd channels, including pioneers like ESPN, CNN, and MTV. By 2016, there were between 99 million and 116 million cable subscribers, who were paying an average bill of $104 a month.

These days, it’s a lot cheaper (and increasingly common) to skip cable and opt for cheaper streaming services instead. Enter Netflix and Hulu, to name a couple of them. Both services offer streaming television videos for around $10 a month. While that’s cheap compared to the average cable bill, these services were unheard of just a few decades ago, when most Americans simply watched their TV shows for free.

#4: Paid Radio Subscriptions

If you grew up in the ’80s, you know that radio was huge! Without the internet to keep you occupied, you could find your favorite tunes on the radio — and maybe even indulge in some light copyright infringement by recording them live (praying that the DJ wouldn’t talk over the whole intro). Of course, the radio was free as long as you didn’t mind enduring countless commercials that cut into your listening pleasure.

Satellite radio services such as Sirius XM Radio didn’t launch until after the year 2000, though they did change radio for the long haul. With these new services, you could pay for radio service to score premium content and niche channels without all the commercials and interruptions.

If you had told a mom in the ’80s she’d be paying for radio one day, she may not have believed you. But today, you can pay around $15 a month for a satellite radio subscription, and more than 30 million people do just that. Another 50 million pay $5 to $15 a month for a Spotify streaming radio subscription.

#5: Gym Memberships and Streaming Fitness Subscriptions

While fitness clubs with monthly memberships have been around for decades, they really caught fire during the vainglorious ’80s and have continued to grow ever since. Remember the old Gold Gyms that featured mostly free weights, beefy men in tight shorts, and aerobics classes taught by legwarmer-clad, onesie-wearing ladies?

Those gyms of the old days have been reimagined to fulfill 21st-century needs – with on-site coffee shops, daycare, and fancy exercise equipment no one could dream of using in the 1980s. They’ve also become a much bigger part of our lives and a bigger drain on our wallets. There were just 3,000 fitness clubs in the United States in 1978, according to a 2008 study by Bentley University’s Marc Stern; by 2015, there were more than 36,000, taking in more than $25 billion in total revenues.

The ’80s also saw the stratospheric rise of fitness videos like “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” first released in 1982. And obviously, VHS-era exercise programs have now gone online. Due to their busy lifestyles or the ease of technology, many exercise enthusiasts choose to bring the workout home through online subscription services these days.

Daily Burn and Beach Body are two companies that make exercising at home easy with any computer, smartphone, or tablet. Both offer a free 30-day trial, then cost less than $15 a month to maintain.

Since the average gym membership rang in at $58 in 2016, these services are actually an upgrade from an earlier time when your choices were the gym or bust.

Were the ’80s Cheaper?

The ’80s were notoriously crazy, with embarrassing hair, awkward fashions, and dance music that still perplexes us to this day. But, were the ’80s cheaper? It really depends.

There may be more ways to spend money than ever before, but technology has also made our lives cheaper and more convenient, too. And while some core expenses, such as healthcare, housing, and education, have skyrocketed since the 1980s, others, such as cars, TVs, and food, have actually gotten cheaper when adjusted for inflation.

Either way, it’s fun to remember a time when boy bands reigned and even hair had wings.

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.

How do you think your bills are different in 2017? What bills would you add to this list?

Related Articles:

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Here’s How Much the Average American Pays in Interest Each Year

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From the moment we’re born, we’re taught that borrowing money is normal and, dare I say it, expected. From mortgages to car loans to $700 smartphones we pay for over 24 months, we’re taught to spread the pain of our purchases over the course of many months or years.

Obviously, this mindset isn’t always bad. With housing prices surging toward all-time highs, taking out a mortgage is the only way most of us will ever own a home. Student loans can be a great investment — albeit an expensive one — that can lead to a lifetime of higher wages. And of course, small businesses often need to borrow to get their ideas off the ground. Without an infusion of cash, many of the world’s smartest business ideas would never have a chance.

How Much Interest Does the Average American Pay Each Year?

But all that borrowing doesn’t come cheap. Every time you put something on plastic or spread out the payments, you’re effectively paying more for the very same item in the form of interest owed to the bank or lender. Credit is absolutely convenient, but it has a real cost, too.

Have you ever wondered how much the interest you pay on myriad purchases adds up over a year, or even a lifetime? Or how much you could save if you avoided financing and paid for things in cash — even half the time?

Believe me when I say the costs of borrowing are staggering. Here’s how much interest the average American household is paying on, well, just about everything:

Mortgage Interest: $5,646

The median price of a home sold in the United States climbed to $260,900 in February, according real estate brokerage Redfin. That’s great news for those who bought their homes when prices were lower, but a tough pill to swallow for young people entering the housing market for the first time.

With the average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate loan sitting at 4.44% as of this writing, someone purchasing a median-priced home with a typical 20% down payment would owe $169,390 in interest over the 30-year life of their mortgage — or $5,646 a year in interest.

Of course, there are plenty of caveats to consider: Not everyone owns a home, and many who do purchased theirs years ago. Plus not all home buyers need a mortgage, and the mortgage interest tax deduction takes at least some of the sting out of that interest payment. But it’s a pretty fair starting point, and it’s one that leaves many American families in the hole from the outset.

Auto Loan Interest: $769 to $895

The average new car loan in the fourth quarter of 2016 worked out to $30,621, according to a recent Experian survey, while the average used car loan was $19,329. These loans extended for an average of 68 months and 63 months, respectively, with average interest rates of 4.74% and 8.50%.

Put all these figures together, and the average new car owner pays $4,356 in interest over the course of a 68-month loan, or $769 a year. The average used car buyer, on the other hand, despite borrowing less money, would pay $4,700 in interest all told, or $895 a year.

Credit Card Interest: $855

You can make a case for home and even auto loans, but credit card debt is simply bad news. The average credit card debt per cardholder — and there are now 133 million of us in the United States — was $5,247 in June 2016, according to a report by TransUnion.

With the average APR on all credit cards up to 16.3% as of March 2017, the average cardholder who carries a balance — and there are a lot of them: 43.3% of cardholders are considered “revolvers,” meaning they carry a balance from month to month, versus the 29.2% of “transactors” who pay off their balances each month — is paying $855 a year just in interest charges.

Student Loan Interest: $641

America’s collective student loan debt is up to an astonishing $1.4 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a burden that’s borne by more than 44 million borrowers. That works out to about $31,818 per borrower. (Borrowers in the class of 2016, meanwhile, left school with an average debt burden of $37,172, according to Student Loan Hero.)

Student loans are notoriously complicated, of course — they come in many different types and with varied interest rates — so it’s hard to come up with an average rate across the board. As a proxy, we’ll use this year’s federal interest rate for direct unsubsidized loans for undergraduate students, which is 3.76%.

Even at that fairly low rate, the average student loan borrower on a standard 10-year repayment plan will pay $6,405 in interest in total, or an average of about $641 a year. Borrowers who take out private loans could end up paying even more than that.

Borrowing Adds Up Fast

So, let’s put it all together: If you’re an average American family with a mortgage on a median-priced home, at least one car payment, an average student loan burden, and just one credit card with an average balance, you could be paying $8,037 or more just in interest each year.

That’s a whopping 14% of the median household’s income that might be going toward, well… nothing, really — just the pricey privilege of purchasing on credit.

And that’s just the basic stuff: If you finance other consumer goods – like furniture, your smartphone, or a motorcycle or boat – or if you owe money on personal loans or home equity loans, you could be signing off a whole lot more of your paycheck to the bank each year.

While borrowing money can make a lot of sense – and even leave us better off in the long run – it’s important to note how the interest we pay each month, and each year, adds up in a big way. Not only does the debt we take on leave us making payments for longer stretches of time, but it leads to higher interest payments (and more money down the drain) over the course of our lives.

Before you borrow money, make sure you know the full cost of the loan – and not just what your monthly payment will be. Then, brainstorm ways to borrow the least amount of money possible. You might need a new car to get to work, for example, but nobody needs to borrow $45,000 for a new SUV. By borrowing less, you’ll whittle down the amount of pointless interest you’re paying each year, and increase the amount you can save toward your financial goals — not the bank’s.

You can also try sticking to cash when you can, or saving up a large down payment when you absolutely have to borrow money. The less money you can borrow over time, the better off you’ll be.

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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Have you ever added up how much interest you pay each year? What would you add to this list?

The post Here’s How Much the Average American Pays in Interest Each Year appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

The Power of the Spice Rack: How Simple Spices, Aromatics, and Other Simple Additions Can Transform

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I am a huge advocate for making low cost meals at home. It’s been one of our biggest money savers over the past several years, trimming our cost per meal for our family well below $1 per meal, which means we can feed a family of five for about $400-450 per month, and we do it with delicious foods that we all like and still afford to eat out or get takeout every once in a while.

A big part of that savings comes from simply using staple foods as often as possible. We use rice and beans and eggs and peanut butter and pasta and low-cost produce for many meals – you can see a full list of the low cost staples that make up the backbone of our diet. However, on their own, those foods can be pretty bland. Plain rice? Plain beans? Yeah, not exactly the most flavorful or exciting foods in the world.

The trick, of course, is to season them well with herbs and spices when you’re cooking them. Salt can make almost everything that’s not sweet taste better, of course, and black pepper helps with most things, but those two just scratch the surface of what you can do with a good selection of herbs and spices.

The problem, of course, is that it’s often hard for someone new to the kitchen to know what spices to use with what foods. If you season something the wrong way, you end up with something that can be less than appetizing. What can a person do?

Honestly, I started figuring out the mystery of flavoring foods by simply trying lots of simple recipes at home and seeing what I liked. I picked up a bunch of cookbooks full of “simple recipes” that mostly revolved around cooking and spicing one or two key ingredients appropriately and I noticed what was tasty and what wasn’t. Based on that, I have a good idea of how to add herbs and spices to various staple foods to make them quite tasty.

Still, it would have been useful at that earlier point to simply have a thoughtful guide as to how to season many staple foods in a way that I might enjoy rather than having to make lots of recipes and trial by error. What do I add to rice to make it flavorful? Beans? What can I do with peanut butter? What can I do with leafy greens?

It’s easy to find long lists of herbs, spices, and other flavorings, and what you can do with them, but today I’m going to give you the reverse. I’m going to list a bunch of staple foods you can buy really inexpensively at the store and give you several options for adding flavorful items to them. In most cases, all you have to do is cook the item and add the suggested spice when cooking or at the end of the preparation.

Not all of these will click perfectly with your taste buds, of course, but trying them out is so incredibly simple and most of them will result in a pretty tasty experience, giving you another low-cost food you can add to your repertoire.

Beans

Beans come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but most maintain a simple earthy flavor that, although I love it on its own, can prove to be a bit on the bland side. I vastly prefer cooking dry beans at home on my own. Here are some herbs, spices, and other seasonings you can add to amp up beans.

Salt Salt can bring beans to life and can help with almost anything else on this list. Add salt to taste by mixing them into the beans if you’re doing it early on in the process if you’re boiling dry beans yourself. Typically, canned beans are already salted, but trust your own taste buds.

Onions and/or peppers, chopped and sautéed Just chop up some white onions and peppers of almost any kind – bell peppers if you don’t want anything too spicy or your hot pepper of choice if you do want some heat – and cook those chopped vegetables in a skillet with a bit of oil until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Then add a bit of water to the hot skillet and dump the whole mix right into the beans. You can do this after the beans are finished cooking to make the liquid between the beans much more flavorful, or you can do it early in the cooking process to put some flavor straight into the beans (though you’ll lose a lot of flavor when you strain the beans). With canned beans, you can just mix this in afterward. I usually use about an eighth of a small white onion and about half again as much diced peppers per cup of beans.

Chopped garlic or garlic powder Heat some chopped garlic in a saucepan or skillet for just a minute or so, or add a spoonful or two of garlic powder. I suggest going light with this at first and then adding it slowly until it tastes right.

Cilantro To some people, cilantro tastes citrus-y. To others, it tastes like soap. If you’re on the citrus side of the equation, half a teaspoon of dried cilantro per can of beans (or a quarter teaspoon per cup of cooked beans) or a tablespoon of fresh cilantro will add a nice citrus-y fresh flavor to the beans.

Cumin Cumin is a wonderful addition to beans if you’re going to use them in a soup or as part of another dish (such as enchiladas). Add half a teaspoon of ground cumin per cup of cooked beans and you’ll have some great earthy flavor that makes the entire dish taste deeper and more full-bodied.

Cayenne or chili powder Both of these are ground peppers that add “heat” to beans. You should add both of these to taste, as different people have different levels of heat and chili flavor that they desire. These are great if you intend to make a spicy dish or you’re making chili.

So, for example, let’s say I’m cooking beans for a black bean “chili” recipe. I’m going to add a bit of salt and ground black pepper, chopped white onions and peppers, some chopped garlic, some cumin, and some chili powder and a bit of cayenne right into the beans along with a bit of liquid and I have the backbone of my soup right there. If I’m making enchiladas, I’ll probably use some cilantro and maybe a bit less cumin. If I’m making a white bean soup, I’ll just use the onions and peppers, the garlic, and the cumin and skip the other stuff.

Rice

Rice is something of a blank slate, even more so than beans. You can add almost anything you want to it to make it delicious.

Broth If you’ve cooked anything flavorful recently, save the broth from whatever it is that you cooked and use it to cook up the rice. You can save soup broth or broth from cooking a chicken or you can even make your own broth/stock by boiling vegetable scraps or bones and saving the liquid. Salt and pepper in the broth brings out even more flavor.

Soy sauce Just a bit of soy sauce in cooked rice makes all of it taste amazingly flavorful. It’s much easier to acquire than the ingredients that make it up, too – it’s a great “flavor simplifier.”

Curry powder Curry powder is just a convenient mix of several spices – curry leaf, coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers, with some variants having things like ginger, garlic powder, mustard seed, cinnamon, and other things. You can honestly use any of the basic ingredients in curry powder to liven up rice, but the mix that is curry powder really does a good job.

Onions and/or mushrooms and/or peppers, chopped and sautéed The strategy here is much the same as it is above, with adding peppers and onions to rice. Just add a bit of oil in the pan, toss in these ingredients over medium-high heat, and cook them, tossing them around until the onion is just turning a bit brown. Add a bit of liquid to the hot skillet and add it straight to the rice, mixing it around in there. You’re going to make all of the rice have a wonderful flavor that you can happily eat just on its own or you can serve along with almost anything.

Salsa The ingredients in salsa are almost all perfect for rice seasoning, so why not just mix salsa straight in there? Tomatoes, cilantro, onions, peppers, lime juice, cumin, peppers – they’re all good with rice, and salsa is just a mix of those things.

Cinnamon and sugar This one is near and dear to my heart because it was something my mother used to fix as a snack when we had extra rice when I was a kid. She’d simply take a cup or so of rice, mix in half a teaspoon of cinnamon and what seemed like a tablespoon of sugar, and warm it in the microwave for a sweet snack. You could use it as a side dish as well, or just sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar on top of warm rice.

Leafy Greens

First of all, let me state that you can flavor leafy greens with almost anything you can imagine and it will probably be interesting and tasty. However, there are a few general guidelines that will guide you toward something flavorful for your leafy greens.

Simple dressing Just mix four parts olive oil to one part white vinegar or red wine vinegar. That’s it. Into that, you can add all kinds of things, then toss the mix with the leafy greens to make a tasty salad.

Things you can add to simple dressing include pureed berries, a small amount of sugar, salt, garlic powder, pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, celery powder, and parsley. Be very careful with mixing sweet and savory ingredients together, as you can result in some questionable flavors. I suggest trying just one or two ingredients at a time and seeing what you like.

Heating the dressing is also often very tasty, as it changes the texture of the leafy greens.

Fresh fruits You can toss small fresh fruits with almost any leafy greens to add some sweetness and flavor variety to them. You can mix anything from berries to mandarin orange slices to bits of apple to greens. You can also squeeze citrus fruits and add their juice straight to leafy greens, along with the zest of their skins.

Peanut Butter

Most people see a jar of peanut butter and think of the traditional standby that is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good PB&J, but there are many other interesting things you can do with peanut butter.

Soy sauce I’ll mix about two teaspoons of soy sauce with a cup of peanut butter and mix it in with some pasta for a very simple and amazingly flavorful meal. You wouldn’t think this would work, but it actually works really well with the slight sweetness of the peanut butter playing off of the strong savory soy sauce and the texture of the pasta. It’s delicious!

Small fruits, nuts, and seeds Just mix a ton of small fruits – preferably dried ones, like raisins or dried cranberries – and nuts and seeds in with a bit of peanut butter until they all just stick together and you have yourself a simple snack bar. You can use almost anything here and it works – I recommend flattening out this mix, cutting it into bar shapes, and storing them in the freezer individually wrapped with cling wrap.

Cocoa powder You can turn peanut butter into a peanut-butter-and-chocolate dream by just adding a bit of cocoa powder to it. You can overdo this really easily, so just use a little bit – like a half a teaspoon of cocoa powder per cup of peanut butter – and then slowly move up from there until you find the right balance of texture and flavor.

Chicken

Chicken is incredibly inexpensive and reasonably flavorful on its own, but it also meshes so well with so many different flavorings and spices. You can do all kinds of things with chicken! Here are just a few examples.

Garlic You can use garlic powder or minced garlic, but all you have to do is mix it in a bit of olive oil with a bit of salt and pepper and then spread it all over the chicken before you cook it, whether you grill it or bake it or use other methods. It’ll imbue a wonderful garlicky flavor right into the chicken.

Oregano This will add a bit of “Italian” flavor to chicken. You just do the same thing as you would do with the garlic – mix it with a bit of olive oil and coat the chicken. You can even let it rest in the olive oil with oregano for a while to soak in the flavor.

Rosemary Rosemary always adds a bit of lemony flavor to anything, at least to my taste buds, and that flavor also pairs well with chicken. Again, a bit of olive oil, a bit of rosemary, a bit of salt and pepper, all mixed together and coated on the chicken.

Mustard powder (with honey) For a different approach, try mixing a bit of mustard powder in with some honey and very lightly coating chicken pieces with it. In this case, you wind up with a sweet and spicy glaze on the outer surface of the chicken with a bit of the sweet and sour soaking in through the chicken juice. Again, this is recommended if you grill or bake the chicken.

Chili powder A light dusting of chili powder that’s stuck on the natural moisture of the surface of the chicken creates a great flavorful outer layer, and some of that is absorbed into the meat itself by the chicken’s natural liquids. Spread this on and cook as you will.

Eggs

Eggs are one of my favorite foods of all time. I love poaching them, scrambling them, frying them, hard boiling them, soft boiling them. I love just eating them with just a bit of salt and pepper on them and I’d never get tired of them. However, there are some simple things you can do to add even more flavor variety.

Chili powder Sprinkle some chili powder on an egg as you’re cooking it or on a hard-boiled egg afterwards to add a great kick of spice and flavor to the finished product. Again, amounts vary according to individual taste – try adding a little this time, then gradually kick it up until you find the right level for you that isn’t overpowering.

Tarragon I love adding tarragon – whether fresh or dried – to scrambled eggs, as it adds this tiny subtle bittersweet flavor that just adds something amazing to eggs when used in small amounts. I love putting a few dashes of tarragon into scrambled eggs along with some salt and pepper.

Chives Chives go great in scrambled eggs as well, adding a bit of an oniony flavor to the eggs. We’re lucky enough to have a great patch of chives behind our house which we use heavily throughout the growing season and chives are almost a constant in our scrambled eggs.

Dill and paprika I like using these two together with a light dash of each on a hardboiled egg or mixed together with the yolk to make a simple “deviled egg.” They just add a wonderful zest to the flavor of egg yolk.

Thyme A bit of dried thyme adds a wonderful earthy flavor to eggs, so I like to sprinkle a bit on top of a fried egg as it’s cooking when I know I’m going to pair it with something like toast with butter. Thyme just wonderfully complements a fried egg, in my book.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite low cost secrets from the grocery store. I love baking sweet potatoes, mashing them, and cutting them up into strips and coating them with a bit of oil to make “oven fries” by baking them. Of course, a bit of flavor never hurts…

Oregano Whenever I cut sweet potatoes into strips for “oven fries,” I coat them in just a bit of oil, then cover them with salt, pepper, and oregano and then bake them until they pass the “taste test.” I like them when the outside is almost crisp but the inside is soft; baking at 350 F for 45 minutes to an hour i what you’ll want to do. When they come out of the oven, they’re so delicious that almost no one in the family can keep themselves from grabbing one or two.

Cinnamon You can bake a sweet potato just like a normal potato and you can even do it in the oven, but when you get it out, cut it open, put a bit of butter in there, and sprinkle a bit of sugar and cinnamon on top. It complements the sweet potato flavor with some wonderful sweetness that’s just amazing as a slightly sweet side dish or even as a dessert.

Maple syrup You can also make mashed potatoes out of sweet potatoes by boiling them until they’re soft then simply mashing them with a mixer or a ricer. The secret, however, is to mix in just a little maple syrup at the end, adding a wonderful maple flavor to the whole thing. Putting a scoop of that on your plate, with just a bit of butter on top, is just amazing.

Final Thoughts

It only takes a little bit of flavoring to turn a boring, cheap staple into something delicious from your chicken. Just add a spice, some herbs, a simple sauce, or an aromatic vegetable, and you’ve turned your simple cheap staple into something wonderful.

Better yet, once you have a sense of what many of the basic items do to the flavor of the staples, you can start mixing and matching what you like. It becomes fun and quite easy to make delicious meals at home with just the cheapest staples and a few seasonings.

Good luck!

The post The Power of the Spice Rack: How Simple Spices, Aromatics, and Other Simple Additions Can Transform Bland Staples Into Amazing Foods appeared first on The Simple Dollar.