Month: August 2019

The “Free” Pen Problem

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Recently, my family and I attended the Iowa State Fair, as is something of an annual tradition for us. We go for a lot of reasons: the flood of presidential candidates that speak at the Fair every year, the interesting demonstrations, the free concerts (of which there seem to be three or four going on at all times somewhere on the fairgrounds), the art shows, the horticulture displays, and many other odds and ends.

One large building on the fairgrounds, the Varied Industries building, is absolutely chock full of booths of various kinds. Some of them promote businesses, but many of them are reserved for state universities and various state agencies. There’s a booth for the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa. There are booths for seemingly endless state offices and functions. There’s a booth for Iowa Public Television. There’s a booth for the Iowa Democratic Party and the Iowa Republican Party. You get the idea.

Many of these booths have various items you can pick up as you walk by, and one of the most common booth freebies is a pen that’s usually emblazoned with the contact information of the organization involved.

As we went through the building and walked by tons of booths, my son made the astute observation that I wasn’t picking up many of the free pens. It’s not exactly a secret that I love writing down my thoughts by hand and that I love finding a bargain, so why wasn’t I grabbing all of these free pens?

The answer is pretty simple. Most free pens don’t do their job very well. They’re usually really poorly made and often won’t write when you try to get them to write. You have to shake them or scribble a bunch to get the ink flowing. Furthermore, a lot of cheap pens will have “ink explosions” if you keep them in your pocket, as I like to do. I’ve had pants just ruined by explosions of black ink in the pocket.

That’s the catch: free isn’t always free.

Those “free” pens come with a number of costs. For starters, they eat up time that a good pen wouldn’t. Often, when I use a cheap pen, I have to invest time just to get the ink flowing, by scribbling or shaking the pen. Sometimes, that first attempt at writing will result in a big ink blotch on the page, which often adds more time and difficulty to the situation.

Also, cheap freebie pens are much more likely to leak at a moment when you don’t want them to leak, and that adds up to another time cost and often a money cost. As I noted, I’ve had clothes ruined by cheap pens leaking unexpectedly. I’ve had huge ink blotches appear on documents that I had to re-print or spend time to replace.

A good, reliable pen doesn’t have any of those additional costs. It writes when you need it to, saving time. It doesn’t bleed all over documents, saving more time. It doesn’t ruin clothing or paper, saving money. It just does the job, and does it well.

Thus, I don’t even bother with a free pen or a super cheap pen. The additional costs that come along with it – the time lost to making it work right and cleaning up the messes, the money lost to ink leaks – drastically exceed, at least for me, the cost of buying a $1 pen that won’t have any of those problems, like a Pilot G-2 or a Uniball Signo 207. I’m not even talking about a higher end fancy pen, just a great bang-for-the-buck low end pen.

Sure, I picked up a few freebie pens, the ones that seemed like they were of reasonable quality and wrote as soon as I clicked them. However, I don’t use them for everyday use. I keep those in a drawer and give them to guests at home if they’re needed and I usually just tell them to keep them. I might toss one or two in a game box so that there’s a pen available to add up the score at the end.

This brings me to another factor: everyday use. If I used a pen maybe once a week, didn’t carry one in my pocket, and didn’t rely on them multiple times a day, then I probably wouldn’t care as much. Scribbling to get the ink flowing once a week is forgettable; scribbling like that ten times a day is frustrating. Having a pen leak on a document once a year isn’t a big deal; having a pen leak in your notebook once a week is a problem, and having it ever leak in your pocket is a big problem.

Here’s the big picture: “free” isn’t always the best bargain if it comes with hidden costs. A free pen clearly has some hidden costs, and thus if you use pens all the time, you’re better off paying a reasonable amount for a good pen and avoiding those hidden costs than using the “free” pen and paying those hidden costs.

A big part of frugality is figuring out those hidden costs. A trash bag that you can only fill up halfway has a hidden cost. A trash bag that leaks all over the floor has a hidden cost. Bars of soap that basically disintegrate on the soap shelf have a hidden cost. Cheap deodorant that doesn’t keep your arm pits dry has a hidden cost – you’re going to be applying lots of it and you still might stink. An early failure of an item, particularly one you rely on, is definitely a hidden cost.

You have to take into account those hidden costs when finding the true best value when buying an item. Often, it is not the item with the absolute lowest price that ends up being the true best value, because it’s often the item with the absolute lowest price that comes with a lot of hidden costs, while something a little more expensive avoids those hidden costs.

That’s the story with the free pens at the state fair. If you want a pen, you’re not going to get any cheaper than “free.” The problem is that they come with hidden costs, and if those hidden costs add up to a dollar’s worth of frustration or lost time or damaged documents or ink on your pants, then it wasn’t worth it. “Free” is too much to pay for a pen that has more than a dollar’s worth of hidden costs on average, and a cheap pen usually does, particularly if you’re a frequent and heavy pen user.

This is why I won’t buy a no-name paring knife at the dollar store, for example. It might have the lowest sticker price, but I feel pretty confident that such a paring knife is going to be packing a lot of hidden costs. It’s probably not going to keep any sort of sharpness over time; it might even be dull coming out of the package. The handle is probably poorly made, bordering on dangerous (I’ve had a blade come out of the handle of a super cheap knife before). It’s going to add up to a lot of extra time with any job you’re doing with it, particularly after several uses, and there’s a higher risk of injury, too. That’s a steep hidden cost; sure, I’m not paying as much for the knife, but if I actually use it, I’m going to be paying that extra cost. I’m simply better off doing the research and finding a good “bang for the buck” knife that doesn’t have those hidden costs.

Obviously, this means that you’re probably paying a little more up front when buying things. You’re not using the free pens from the state fair; you’re actually buying them. You’re not using the dollar store paring knife; you’re buying a somewhat more expensive one (like this $8 one) that doesn’t have the hidden costs of frustration and time and potential injury.

Buying the cheapest solution for a problem is often like going into debt. You’re not paying nearly as much up front, but you’re kicking the actual costs down the road. You’ll pay for that decision every time you use it, whether it’s scribbling trying to get ink to flow or cutting yourself due to the cheap blade or smelling atrocious because of the cheap deodorant.

The lesson of the free pen is this: do your homework, know the hidden costs, and find the actual best “bang for the buck” item instead of the one with the lowest sticker price. Sometimes, the one with the lowest sticker price will be the best “bang for the buck” item, but that’s far from a guarantee; in fact, it happens seldom enough that you shouldn’t rely on that happening and you’re better off doing a little homework.

How do you do the “homework” and figure out what’s worthwhile? I read reviews from trusted sources about everything. I rely on Consumer Reports for a lot of things and on specialty sources like The Pen Addict when looking at specific niche items. I tend to rely only on sources where people are putting their reputation on the line; Consumer Reports gets egg on their face if they botch a review, and The Pen Addict loses significant reputation if their recommendations are out of whack.

I usually look for their “bang for the buck” or “entry level” recommendations when I’m not sure what to get. If I really know the ins and outs of an item, I can narrow that down a little more, but I mostly save that for daily use items.

In the end, I’ve learned the hard way that “free” is usually not a bargain and you’re better off paying a little more for the good “bang for the buck” item than just grabbing the cheapest one. Those hidden costs will get you every time. That’s the true lesson of the free pens from the state fair.

Good luck.

The post The “Free” Pen Problem appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Eleven Cookbooks I Keep on My Shelf – And Why

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Jamie writes in:

What cookbooks do you recommend for someone who is just starting out on their own?

I’ve made no secret over the years that I love cookbooks, to the point that family and friends often just find interesting cookbooks (particularly ones focused on more obscure topics) to give to me as a gift. Earlier this year, in fact, I had a friend text me a picture of several cookbooks she bought for me for $0.50 apiece at a yard sale where the person had a ton of cookbooks; she went through and found some unusual ones that she thought I’d like. It took $3.50 to put a huge smile on my face.

Part of the reason that I love cookbooks so much is that I love making food items and beverage items at home. I love being able to customize them and make them the way I want, from the ingredients I want. It saves a ton of money and often results in much better food.

There are times when I’ll devote whole weekend days to making foodstuffs, but most of the time, I’m really practical with cooking. I have three kids that are in upper elementary and middle school, which means that our life schedules are entering a phase where simply having a family dinner together can be like threading a needle sometimes. I want to be able to make low-cost home-cooked meals, sometimes in very small timeframes, so that we can eat dinner together as often as possible.

What this means is that several times a week, if you peek in our house, you’ll see me or Sarah in the kitchen with a cookbook flopped open on the table as we attempt to prepare some meal. Maybe it’s me on the weekend trying to figure out how to make some strange fermented food, or on a weeknight trying to put together a casserole that can be on the table at precisely 5:45 so that we have time to eat and our two oldest ones can be on their way to practices by 6:15. Maybe you’ll see Sarah loading something in the slow cooker in the morning or trying to bake a cake on a Saturday afternoon.

I enjoy using cookbooks. I enjoy sitting down and just reading them, looking for new ideas and techniques. I enjoy having them around for reference, too.

The question that is really being asked here is this: what cookbooks do I consider to be the essential ones on my shelf, particularly ones that are useful for someone relatively new to preparing food at home?

I went through our cookbook collection and came up with a handful.

It’s worth noting that when I’m discussing these cookbooks, I strongly encourage you to check them out from the library rather than just buying them. Borrow these for a few weeks, read through some of the material in them, and try using them for a few recipes and techniques. Decide for yourself if this book works for you or not. Then, if it does click, look for it on discount. You’d be surprised how many of these can be found at used bookstores, for example, or at library book sales.

First, however, let me talk a bit about how I chose these.

What Makes a Good Cookbook?

There are really four things I look for in a cookbook.

First of all, it needs to have a technique focus. I shouldn’t be in a situation where I read a recipe and wonder, “How on earth do I do this?” If it’s a new technique that isn’t a super-common one, there should be a technique section in that cookbook or enough of an explanation right there that I’m not lost. Techniques are the key. I don’t mind it if I don’t quite understand the technique from reading it, but it should be named and identified clearly enough that I can turn to Youtube for more visual instruction, as it can be hard to describe some techniques with words and pictures. Tell me enough and show me enough that I can either figure it out with just that book or I can figure it out with a Youtube search.

Second, the recipes need to have at least something of a low cost focus with reasonably accessible ingredients. A cookbook that contains lots of ingredients that I can’t find within a twenty mile radius of my home is not very useful to me. I need to be able to find almost all ingredients in the cookbook at local grocery stores and food co-ops and ethnic groceries. There are several of these around here, but some cookbooks end up talking about things that you can seemingly only find if you know a monk in rural Indonesia, and that’s basically useless to me. The ingredients for the average recipe in the book shouldn’t cost me a lot.

Third: at least some of the recipes need to be reasonably quick or reasonably hands-free. I like having some cookbooks and some recipes that are very time and focus and effort intensive, but a good reference cookbook for general use should have a lot of quicker recipes that people can actually prepare on a weeknight evening.

Another thing: it needs to be able to physically lay flat on a table. If a cookbook can’t do this, I’m frustrated with it. This isn’t an absolute do-or-die rule, but I have passed on cookbooks that couldn’t lay flat on a table. This is important because I often have them in the kitchen, open on a table before me, and I don’t want to deal with cookbooks that won’t stay open. Spiral binding is good, as are most thick hardbacks. Paperbacks and some thin hardbacks are often terrible (but not always).

It’s worth noting that the list below is only a selection of our overall cookbook collection. We have a lot of cookbooks we’ve collected over the years and I’ve found value in all of them, but they’re not all ones I would directly recommend for someone aiming to have a few good general purpose cookbooks for a frugally-minded kitchen. They’re either incredibly focused (like Egg by Michael Ruhlman, which is more than 200 pages of incredible detail on various ways to prepare eggs) or loaded with complex recipes that I wouldn’t really recommend to someone who wasn’t at least somewhat adept in a home kitchen.

Here are a bunch of cookbooks that I recommend for any frugally minded home kitchen, even for people completely new to home food preparation.

How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

If I were to make a single cookbook recommendation for anyone who is starting to cook at home, it would be How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, hands down. It works as a tutorial on how to cook at home, starting with extremely basic recipes and techniques that I would trust my nine year old to do and building from there. It also works as a pretty robust reference for basic techniques and recipes for a lot of things you might cook at home. The recipes are simple to follow and just work, plus any techniques are explained extremely well. I turn to this by default when I’m figuring out the basics of making something at home; there’s a decent chance that anything I can think of that isn’t really esoteric is probably discussed in this book. The ingredients are never unusual or hard to find and the recipes are almost always a breeze to follow. There’s almost nothing else I could ask for in terms of a single cookbook for the beginning and intermediate home cook.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is basically the same cookbook with the sections on meats removed and replaced with additional material for preparing plant-based meals. Our family mostly eats vegetarian for health reasons, so this one has actually seen more use over the last few years than the original.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Marian Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

Our copy of The Joy of Cooking looks like it has been beat to death. It has a handmade paper “dust cover” on it because the cover was actually partially burnt while in use. It has spills on it in several places. Some of the index pages are unreadable.

How did it get into that state? It was used – hard.

I would describe The Joy of Cooking as being a similar combination of techniques and recipes as How to Cook Everything, but with a step up in complexity and with a rather quirky tone in places. While there is definitely a lot of overlap in content between the two books, The Joy of Cooking definitely gets into more complex recipes and techniques and covers some things that How to Cook Everything doesn’t touch. It also tends to make some more assumptions of the reader, assuming you know a lot of basic techniques in the kitchen. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s a good “next step” after How to Cook Everything.

I tend to use How to Cook Everything for a quick reference for basic weeknight meals or weekend lunches. I turn to The Joy of Cooking for weekend meals when I’m trying to make something amazing, or when a weeknight meal isn’t turning out like I want. The Rombauer/Becker clan usually has the answers I need.

The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Much as how The Joy of Cooking is a great “next step” all-around cookbook complement to How to Cook Everything, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a great “next step” all-around cookbook for vegetarian food to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. In fact, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is probably my most referred-to cookbook over the last few years as my family has transitioned slowly to an almost entirely vegetarian diet.

Again, what makes this book excel is the strong focus on technique, the clear explanations of everything, and the wide range of topics in a single volume. There are a ton of techniques and recipes and ideas and variations and “what to do with this ingredient” jammed into this book, and thus it functions as my default for figuring out what to do with a bunch of excess radishes (for example). While I find that How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is more accessible for quick weeknight meals, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is invaluable for weekend cooking when I have more time.

If you’re a vegetarian (or nearly so) and at least somewhat experienced in the kitchen, this is the best single volume to have, in my opinion.

Ratio by Michael Ruhlman

Ratio is probably the most unexpected choice on this list as it is probably the least like a traditional cookbook, but I felt strongly compelled to include it here because it’s done so much to help mold how I actually cook frugally in my kitchen.

The idea behind Ratio is that almost everything you prepare in a kitchen is essentially just a proportional mix of a few things by weight. For example, pancake batter is a ratio of 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part butter, and 2 parts flour. You can then vary these as you like – use whatever flour you want, use a variety of liquids for the liquid part (milk, yogurt, and so on), use butter alternatives for the butter, and so on.

Basically, the entire book is a framework to encourage you to experiment in the kitchen. It gives you a bunch of principles to stick with, then basically says “Go try this.” There are a few bits and pieces that hold your hand, but much of the rest of the book is just general frameworks and a few tips here and there.

This book gave me the courage to experiment in the kitchen, and to understand that even if something doesn’t turn out as you imagine, it’s usually good if the ingredients are good and you learn something, too. More than anything else I’ve ever read, it made me feel unafraid to try new ingredients and just start throwing together meals from the pantry in a pinch. Yeah, some of the things I’ve made have been weird and a few have been downright bad, but most have been quite good, a few have been amazing and well worth repeating, and it has eliminated most of my kitchen fears of “I can’t do this” or “This will be disastrous.” I still refer to it all the time for some starting points and ideas.

Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown

The entire purpose of this book is to present a variety of tasty and fairly healthy recipes trimmed down to the lowest cost possible, hence the subtitle “Eat Well on $4/Day.”

This is the best single cookbook I’ve seen if your focus is on keeping your food costs as low as possible. Most of the recipes are very simple and straightforward, which means that this book is really good for someone who is new to cooking at home.

I often turn to this one during times when we’re trying to really trim our food costs and “get back to the basics” for a while. I also use it as a nice parallel to Ratio, because this book does a great job of pointing to inexpensive ingredients that work well together that I can plug into some of the ratios from the other book. In other words, Good and Cheap serves wonderfully as a jumping off point if you’re wanting to keep costs low but want to start experimenting more and building confidence in the kitchen.

This one is available as a free PDF, but I have the nice compact print version on my shelf.

Love Your Leftovers by Nick Evans

This is the reference book when it comes to leftovers. How do you store leftovers? How do you cook to maximize the utility of leftovers? How do you deal with texture changes? What are good ways to remix a ton of different common leftovers? That’s what this book addresses, and it does it very well.

This book is usually the first place I turn to when I have some leftovers from a meal and don’t know what to do with them, or I have a ton of a particular ingredient that’s going to go bad and I want to have some ideas of what to do with all of this if I cook all of it.

This leads directly into a book on a similar topic…

The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen

This is the best single book I’ve found on meal prepping and preparing parts of meals in advance. I use it as a reference whenever I’m doing a big meal prep or I want to try to prepare something new for freezing.

To be clear, meal prepping means that you’re making a complete meal in advance and freezing it at a mostly-finished point so that it can easily be pulled from the freezer and popped in the oven to finish cooking. This means that, for example, you could make a few pans of lasagna on a lazy Sunday afternoon, then just finish cooking it in the oven on a busy Thursday evening, giving you a great home-cooked meal.

There are so many little useful tips in this book. It’s just full of little things that have refined what I’m doing whenever I’m making meals in advance. For example, the realization that I should put scrambled eggs in the fridge when making breakfast burritos and then pull them out to assemble the burritos cold is genius, because the eggs will “sweat” during this process and if you use a cloth or a paper towel to absorb that “sweat,” your actual breakfast burritos won’t be nearly as “wet” when you cook them later, turning them from soggy messes into deliciousness.

While we’re looking at America’s Test Kitchen offerings…

Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution by America’s Test Kitchen

Let’s start with the obvious question: where is “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 1”? The reason I don’t rely on that one is that most of the recipes in it require a lot of steps, and that’s the very thing I don’t want when making meals with the slow cooker. For me, almost all of the time, the slow cooker is a tool of convenience, so I don’t want complex recipes that require a lot of steps.

On the other hand, Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution really nail what I want from a slow cooker reference book. It explains strategies for cooking lots of different types of things in the slow cooker and offers a bunch of simple recipes for actually preparing things.

These two books are my default reference for things to do with the slow cooker, which we use frequently during busy parts of the year.

The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila

This is probably the most “off the beaten path” book on this list, but I’ve used my copy so much that I feel like I almost have to include it here. It became a portal for me into a world of fermented foods, homemade condiments, spice mixes, and all kinds of homemade foodstuffs, and it’s still the best one-volume coverage of those topics I’ve found.

If you’re interested in taking your home food preparation to the next level and making a lot of the basic ingredients for meals for yourself – sauces, condiments, spice mixes, and so forth – from very basic ingredients, this is a great starting point and reference. While this can definitely save you a little money and can definitely result in some tastier dishes, this is probably not a great time investment unless you’re really into this as a hobby.

Use the Library!

To close, I want to repeat what I said earlier in the article: use the library for these books! Don’t just go out and buy them! See if your local library has a copy, take it home, go through it, and try some of the recipes and techniques for yourself. See if it clicks for you. If it does, then, and only then, look for a copy of the cookbook, preferably a used one.

That being said, these books are really the core pieces of my cookbook library and the ones I continually turn to. I have quite a few other cookbooks that focus in on narrow topics, like the aforementioned Egg, several books on fermentation, a book about sous vide cooking, and so on, but these are the ones I rely on for a wide variety of low-cost home cooking strategies. I hope you’ll find some of them to be useful, too.

Good luck!

The post Eleven Cookbooks I Keep on My Shelf – And Why appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

How to Make a Thousand Bucks an Hour

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Another summer evening skate-n-scoot outing with Mini Me

It’s Back to School time here in Colorado, which means both my son and I will be hanging up the swim shorts and kayak paddles and getting back to more serious business for a while.

It has been a slow and endlessly sunny and leisurely summer, and a nice break for both of us, which has been very relaxing and a great time for bonding.

But relaxation has its limits. At some point all that Chilling Out fades its way into Complacency, and our natural Human nature starts to work against us, telling us to conserve energy and not really do much of anything. And laziness begets more laziness, and life actually becomes less fun.

You can see this effect in our activities. I’ve only completed two blog posts over the entire summer holidays, and together we have put out only two YouTube videos. Spending more time at home and less at the MMM Headquarters squat rack has caused me to lose at least five pounds of leg muscle that I had wanted to keep. Little MM has spent a lot less time practicing on the upright bass and putting out songs, and a lot more time playing video games and getting sucked into the “dank memes” and “Trove” channels on Reddit.

It has been a fun break, but as the freshly polished school buses awaken with the sunrise, it will be even more fun to get our own lives cranking into a higher gear as well. And if you’re reading this, it means I am off to a great start!

Complacency Is Expensive

This laziness was affecting my financial life, and your financial life too. I had let thousands of dollars of uninvested cash build up in my checking account, where it was sitting around earning nothing. My credit card bills had come in, been automatically paid, and filed themselves away without me even reviewing them for fraudulent transactions or wussypants spending on my part. And I had a growing mini-mountain of things I need to do regarding insurance, accounting, and legal stuff in both my personal and business domains.

And yet once I got my act together last week, I cleaned up the whole mess and set things straight in less than an hour.

It’s not Just Me, it’s You

When I talk to friends and family, I notice a common theme: they tend to set up certain “hassle” things once, and then ignore them as long as possible unless some absolute crisis comes along and forces them to make a change.

“Oh, I just do all my insurance stuff with Jim Schmidt’s Insurance office downtown, because my parents referred me to him when I first moved out for college.

Even better, his wife Jane runs a loan brokerage, so she handles all our family’s mortgage needs!”

On this surface, this sounds fun and folksy and like a nice way to do business. And that is exactly the way I like to live: keeping my business relationships as casual and fun as I can. But when it comes to money, complacency can come at a price, so at the bare minimum we should find out exactly what price we are paying.

For example, just recently a coworking member came to me and asked for some financial help. And as always, I suggested we start by looking at big recurring expenses. So we dug into the details of her insurance and other major bills streaming in from ol’ Jim and Jane, and found an interesting breakdown:

  • Required liability coverage on a 2010 Subaru Forester: $580 per year
  • Optional collision and comprehensive coverage ($500 deductible): $360 per year
  • Home insurance on a 2000 square foot house ($500 deductible): $1450 per year
  • Mortgage interest on a $300,000 loan at 4.85%:  $14,550 per year
  • Student Loan interest on an old $35,000 student loan at 5.5%: $1925 per year

Total: $18,865 per year.

It’s no wonder my friend was having financial stress – she had interest and insurance costs that were soaking up half of a reasonable annual budget before she could even buy her first bit of groceries or clothing.

So, right there we did a quick round of phone calls and online quotes, and streamlined a bit of the insurance coverage by increasing the deductibles. Within 90 minutes (she did most of the work while I had a beer and swept the floors of the HQ), we had the following new set of options:

  • Subaru liability coverage: $380 per year ($200 savings) through Geico
  • Removal of collision and comprehensive (in the unlikely event of a crash, they could afford to replace the car with less than two months of income) ($360 savings)
  • Home insurance on a 2000 square foot house ($5000 deductible): $650 per year ($800 savings) through Safeco
  • Refinanced mortgage to 3.375% through*: $10,125 per year ($4,425 savings)
  • Refinanced Student Loan (also Credible) to 3.85%: $1347 per year ($578 savings)

New total expenses: $12,502 ($6363 per year in savings!!)

It is hard to even express the importance of what just happened here.  My friend just did two hours of work in total while drinking a glass of wine,  and dropped her annual expenses by over $500 per month, or six thousand dollars per year. And she will of course invest these savings, which will then compound to about to about $86,000 every ten years. 

Even if she has to do this annual round of phone calls and websites once per year to maintain the best rates on everything, she will be earning about $3150 per hour for this work. Hence the bold title of this article, which you can now see is very conservative.

The Optimization Council

The first Optimization Council meeting at MMM HQ

So you’re convinced. $3150 is enough to get you to pick up the phone, but how do know who to call? Who is going to be your coach if you don’t live near Longmont and thus can’t just join the HQ and have Mr. Money Mustache tell you what to do?

The great news is that all of this knowledge already exists, right in your own circle of friends. To extract it, you just need to gather them together and get them to talk about it.

Earlier this month, I floated exactly this idea with the members of my coworking space, proposing that we form a group with the witty name “The Optimization Council.”

The Council would meet every now and then to talk through life’s biggest expenses and opportunities, and harvest the wisdom of the group so we can all benefit from the best ideas in each category.

The response to this idea was overwhelmingly positive. So we called a first “test” meeting earlier this month and a small group of us talked through the first few categories, sharing not just names like “I use Schmidt Insurance”, but details like, “We have $250,000 coverage with a $1,000 deductible and our premium is $589 per year.”

The meeting was so lively that we quickly ran out of time, but resolved to meet again soon to figure out more things together. I served as the scribe using a shared google doc – here’s a snapshot of that to give you an idea of our topics:

So Yes. There is some thinking and work involved. But there’s also an opportunity to drastically improve your short term cashflow and long-term wealth, and break your friends out of their cautious shell to help them get the same benefits.

As we learned long ago in Protecting your Money Mustache from Spendy Friends, most people tend towards complacency, and following along with the group. Which leaves a big gaping void at the top of the pyramid where the leadership role waits unfilled.

If you are bold enough to climb into this spot (which really means just sending a few emails and Facebook messages, procuring a box or two of wine, and making a large tray of high-end nachos for your guests), you can all reap the rewards for decades to come.

And instead of avoiding this little chore like a hassle, dive into it like a gigantic shower of fun and wealth. After all, this is pretty much the core attitude of Mustachianism Itself.

In the comments: we can start our own Optimization Council right here. If you have found a good deal on any of the categories of life, feel free to share a quick summary of your location (state), and details of the company and product/service/price that you found is the best. To avoid spam filtering, please use names but not direct links.

A Note about Credible:

Watchful readers may have noticed I also mentioned this company on Twitter recently. After a few months of skepticism that the world needed yet another financial company, I was convinced by some conversations with the people running it and a Zoom video of the customer experience from a senior employee, with some very candid commentary on their design choices.

I like it because they import the lending models from their large supply of hooked-up finance companies, then run the rate comparisons on their own server rather than farming out your personal information to each separate lender. It saves you from filling out multiple applications when collecting rates, and also saves you from getting on everyone’s spam list (they don’t sell your contact information, which is a rare thing among loan search engines).

It was a hard model for them to get going, because the banks naturally want to have your information so they can spam you.  But now that they have a growing presence in the market, lenders are forced to come through Credible to get access to this pool of qualified people. After enough testing with people I knew, I found the experience is worth recommending.

So I also signed this blog up with their referral program  – please see my Affiliates philosophy if you are curious or skeptical about how any of that works!

With all that said, if you want to try it out, here are the links:

Mortgages and Refis

Student Loan Refis – $300 bonus with this link

Which financial advice should you trust?

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Commenting on a recent article, Carmine Red asked an excellent question:

How do you evaluate the financial advice you get from other sources? Specifically, how do you decide if some piece of advice is for you, or if you should discard some adjacent advice. Is there an amount of pick-and-choose?

GRS definitely doesn’t seem like a dogmatic 100% one-way-of-doing things site, so I’d love to hear about the critical thinking you employ, and that I’m sure we can all use a little of since we’re getting bombarded by financial “do this!” or “don’t do this” instructions from so many different dimensions.

Carmine is right: GRS is not dogmatic. From the start, my top admonition has been “do what works for you”. By this I mean that you should test financial advice to see if it works for you and your situation. There’s little (if any) advice that applies to 100% of people in 100% of cases. Life is messy. Money is messy.

So, how can you decide whom to trust? How can you evaluate a piece of financial advice to decide whether it has merit? And if the financial advice does have merit, how can you tell if it’s right for yor life?

Today, let’s take a deep dive into this question. Let’s explore how to evaluate all of the financial advice you get — from the internet, from television, and in real life.

How to Evaluate Financial Advice

Before I answer Carmine’s question directly, I want to approach it obliquely. If you find this section boring, please skip to the next one. I won’t hold it against you!

In 1940, Mortimer J. Adler published How to Read a Book, which contained 400 pages of advice on doing something that most people would argue needs no instruction. In 1967, he revised the book and turned it into a little masterpiece.

In the revised edition, Adler argues that there are four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary Reading. At this basic level, the reader is able to answer the question, “What does the sentence say?” But reading at this stage is a mechanical act.
  2. Inspectional Reading. At this level, a reader’s aim is to get the most from a book (or article) in a minimum of time. “Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically,” Adler writes. Your aim is to get a surface understanding of the book, to answer the question, “What is this book about?”
  3. Analytical Reading. At this level, you’re doing the best, most complete and thorough reading of a book that you can do. Inspectional reading is done quickly. Analytical reading is done without a time limit. Its aim is understanding. This is the sort of reading that most of us do most of the time.
  4. Synoptical reading. At the fourth (and highest) level of reading, we read comparatively. “When reading synoptically,” Adler says, “the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another.” My ongoing project to read about the history of retirement? That’s synoptic reading.

What has this to do with evaluating financial advice? Well, I think similar principles apply. When you receive a piece of financial advice from somebody, or you read a recommendation online, there are four levels of evaluation.

  1. Elementary evaluation. When you pick up a piece of financial advice, start by asking yourself “What does this advice say?” You’re not trying to judge its merits. You’re merely trying to parse the recommendation. Believe it or not, you can throw some stuff out at this level because it doesn’t say anything. Or what it says is nonsensical. (I don’t mean nonsensical as in “I disagree with it”. I mean nonsensical as in it literally makes no sense.)
  2. Inspectional evaluation. Next ask, “What is this advice about? What is the overall message? What is its core argument?” You’re not trying to understand nuance here. You’re trying to get the main point. For instance, in Mr. Money Mustache’s popular article “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement”, the core argument is “the more you save, the sooner you can retire”. The main point of the article you’re reading right now is: “There are smart ways to evaluate financial advice. Here are a few.”
  3. Analytical evaluation. The biggest part of evaluating financial advice is taking time to analyze it, to examine the advice in detail, to really understand it. This usually means asking “why?” Why is the person giving this advice? What’s their motivation and what does this advice aim to accomplish? (The rest of this article offers some tips for applying this step.)
  4. Synoptical evaluation. Lastly, if you’re evaluating important advice (such as how much to spend on a house), you should make time to do some comparative evaluation. What do other people have to say? Why do they agree? Why do they disagree? How does this advice fit in to what you already know and what you’re already doing?

Here at Get Rich Slowly, one of my primary aims is to “evaluate synoptically”. I don’t want this site to be one-dimensional. When I write my articles, I try my best to draw from a variety of disciplines and sources. I look for differing opinions. Does that mean I stray from strict personal finance sometimes? Yes, absolutely. But it makes the writing more interesting for me and, I hope, for you.

Okay, that’s some semi-helpful, high-level philosophical stuff about evaluating financial advice. Now let’s look at how to put this into practice. How do you actually analyze financial advice to decide whether it’s good or not?

I think it helps to ask four questions.

Does This Advice Mesh with Reality?

Some advice sets off my Bullshit Detector. Rhonda Byrne’s mega-bestseller The Secret [my review] is a classic example of this. Byrne claims that your life is created by the things you think about. There’s an element of truth to this, but she takes it to an illogical extreme.

I mean, look at this bullshit:

Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency. Everything sent out returns to its source. And that source is You.


To lose weight, don’t focus on “losing weight”. Instead, focus on your perfect weight. Feel the feelings of your perfect weight, and you will summon it to you.

It takes no time for the Universe to manifest what you want. It is as easy to manifest one dollar as it is to manifest one million dollars.

The financial “advice” in The Secret is premium, high-grade bullshit. It doesn’t mesh with reality. I know from experience that I cannot “manifest” a million dollars. I cannot “visualize checks in the mail” and then have them magically appear. (Seriously, that’s one of the bullet points in her book: “Visualize checks in the mail.”)

This is an easy example. Usually, it’s more difficult to determine whether financial advice is reality-based.

For instance, there are a lot of investing systems out there. Their proponents sincerely believe in them. They can be passionate when they explain how their systems work. Testing whether or not investing advice meshes with reality can be complicated and confusing. I find situations like this frustrating, which is why I try to avoid overly complicated advice in favor of simplicity.

This brings up a tangential but important point. When possible, I favor simplicity.

Yes, absolutely yes, money can be messy. It can be complicated. And not all complicated advice is bad advice. Some complicated advice is great, in fact. Todd Tresidder at Financial Mentor has built his entire brand on complicated advice. But he’s not a charlatan. He’s the real deal.

For me, though, Todd’s financial advice is overly complicated. I prefer simple. I’m an “80% solution” kind of guy. That’s why I’m good with Dave Ramsey’s version of the debt snowball, even if it’s not mathematically optimal. That’s why I like investing in index funds. These strategies are simple and effective even if they don’t provide optimal results.

Is This Person Qualified to Give This Advice?

I’ve found that people are quick to offer advice on subjects for which they have little or no understanding. And, in fact, it’s usually the people who know the most about a subject who are slowest to make suggestions — and their suggestions are full of caveats and qualifications.

I have several friends who love Bitcoin as an “investment opportunity”, for example. Yet, these same friends don’t understand the fundamentals of basic investing. It’s difficult for me to take their cryptocurrency recommendations seriously when they can’t explain what a stock is and why you might want to own one. Or a bond. Or any other traditional investment. They might understand the technical details behind Bitcoin, but they don’t understand investing, so I don’t listen when they try to sell this as an investment opportunity.

This same principle applies to financial gurus. Sometimes an expert in one field tries to offer advice in a related field, but that advice isn’t necessarily good.

  • Dave Ramsey is an expert on debt reduction. He’s lived it. He’s been teaching about it for twenty years. He knows what works and what doesn’t. I trust his debt advice. I do not trust Ramsey’s investing advice. He makes bold claims that are demonstrably false.
  • On the other hand, I trust Warren Buffett’s investment advice. He’s one of the greatest investors the world has ever known. When he says that 99% of investors ought to use index funds, that carries a lot of weight. But if he were to offer advice on getting out of debt, I would treat it with some skepticism. Buffett has never been in debt and cannot understand what the experience is like.

I can’t think of any expert I trust 100% about all topics. I don’t believe it’s possible for a person to know everything about everything. Plus, so much of personal finance is personal, right? Sometimes an expert’s advice might be right for most people but, for whatever reason, it might not be right for you.

I am not a trained financial professional, and I try to make that abundantly clear at all times. Anything I know, I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks. Because of this, I do my best to be transparent about what I do and do not know.

When I write about investing, for instance, I cite my sources. I explain where I’m getting my information and why I believe it. I don’t expect you to accept my recommendations because I am the one making them. But if I can show you how I learned something, maybe it’ll be useful for you too.

On the other hand, I’m an expert at making mistakes. You should trust me there haha.

How Does This Person Profit from Their Advice?

I’m generally a positive, trusting fellow. I’m probably too trusting. I believe that people are generally good.

That said, I’ve learned to be skeptical when people offer financial advice. Do they have an ulterior motive? How might they benefit from the advice they’re offering? If they benefit, how does that color their recommendation?

I’ll offer me and my colleagues as prime examples.

I’ve written before about how bloggers walk the thin green line. Most bloggers mean well, but their intentions get clouded when they see how much money they can make writing about this product or that service. Their advice can turn from selfless to selfish.

Here’s a specific example. I almost never trust online credit card and bank reviews. These reviews are not objective. Their aim isn’t to provide you with the info you need to make a decision, but to encourage you to sign up for an account. And bloggers employ all sorts of subtle methods to make that happen. I don’t like it.

This is the primary reason you’ve never seen me do a credit card review. I do want to review the card I use most often, though, and I’ve been working on an article about it for nine months now. When I publish that post, you can be sure the review is based on my experience and I’ll offer disclaimers if I make money from the review.

(Trivia: Until this year, I had never made a penny from credit cards. Zero dollars. Zero cents. That’s changed now, though, since the introduction of our travel credit card tool. Now I’ve made a few hundred dollars from credit cards.)

At the opposite extreme, look at somebody like Mr. Money Mustache. When he writes about things like getting rich with bikes, he has no ulterior motive. He’s not trying to trick you into putting money into his pocket by buying a bike. He doesn’t profit from this recommendation.

Instead, this is something that Pete believes. He believes that biking is better for your health and your wealth. It’s advice he adheres to himself, that he puts into practice daily. And because this is genuine advice without a financial motive, I’m more likely to accept its validity.

This idea even applies to professionals. A real-estate agent is probably prevented from steering you to the most expensive house, but there’s nothing preventing her from spouting nonsense like, “You should buy as much home as you can afford.” That’s dangerous advice that puts people into precarious financial situations — yet generates a bigger commission for the agent.

Always ask yourself how the person giving advice stands to benefit from the advice they’re offering.

What Are the Other Options?

When you’re trying to decide whether or not to accept a piece of financial advice, explore other alternatives. Seek other options and approaches.

It’s very rare in the world of money (and the world in general) that there’s just one way “right” way to do something. There are often multiple good approaches to a problem. This can make it tough to pick the one that’s best for you.

Budgeting is a great example. There are dozens (hundreds?) of different approaches to building a household budget. Choosing a system can be overwhelming. How can you decide which choice is best?

Honestly, you can’t. And you shouldn’t even try.

Instead, forget about “best”. Focus on “good”. When selecting a budget system, use trial and error until you find one that works well for you. Once you’ve found a budget that works, stop actively pursuing other options. Don’t close yourself off to the idea that you might stumble upon a better option in the future, but stop expending energy trying to find a perfect solution when you already have one that works.

A corollary to this principle is that you shouldn’t stick with a piece of advice simply because somebody told you that it’s the best (or the “right”) way to do something. Who cares? If the best (or “right”) way isn’t effective for you, then let it go.

My friend Paula Pant once told me, “An imperfect plan you’ll stick with is better than a perfect plan you won’t.” Exactly.

From day one, my motto here at Get Rich Slowly has been: Do what works for you. If something isn’t effective for you and your situation, abandon it. Don’t stick with something out of the mistaken belief that you’re a failure for choosing another option.

Guidelines for Evaluating Financial Advice

Evaluating financial advice is an extension of critical thinking as a whole. If you become a better critical thinker, you’ll make better decisions regarding the advice you receive. And the more you practice, the better you’ll become.

The ultimate cheatsheet for critical thinking

For my part, I’ve been reading about personal finance extensively for the past fifteen years. In that time, I’ve read (and heard and viewed) all sorts of advice, much of it contradictory. At first, I found this confusing. In time, though, I’ve developed a set of rules (or guidelines, if you prefer) to help me better evaluate the financial advice I receive.

Here are a few:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. (I want to say, “It always is” — but I hate absolutes.)
  • Verify, verify, verify. Don’t blindly follow somebody’s advice. If someone makes a suggestion that sounds reasonable, research what others say both for and against the suggestion.
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you’re an atheist, don’t ignore Dave Ramsey’s debt advice simply because he’s Christian. If you’re conservative, don’t dismiss Elizabeth Warren’s balanced money formula simply because she’s a far-left liberal. Even folks you don’t like can have smart ideas.
  • Favor simplicity. Complicated advice and complicated systems too often hide flaws and problems and traps. Plus, complexity leads to misunderstanding. With money, simplicity is a virtue.
  • You don’t have to take every piece of good advice. I recognize, for example, that real-estate investing can be profitable. It’s an excellent way to build wealth. Still, I don’t want to do it — so I don’t.
  • Check certifications, when applicable (especially when asking for technical and/or legal advice). You can good advice from folks without credentials, and you can get bad advice from experts. But generally speaking, qualified experts are a terrific resource.

Plus, I’ve learned to ask four basic questions when I’m evaluating a new piece of financial advice.

  • How does the person giving the advice profit from it?
  • How do I benefit from the advice?
  • How does society benefit from the advice?
  • Has the other person been successful following their own advice?

This last question is important. If this article weren’t so long already, I’d dive deeper into it. But let’s quickly use Bitcoin and index funds as an example. When people recommend Bitcoin to me, I ask how they’ve done with their “investments” in cryptocurrency. (Typical answer: Not well.) Same thing with index funds: “How have you done?” (Typical answer: Fairly well.)

People love to throw out advice that either they don’t follow or that hasn’t actually worked for them. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s true.

For my part, I try to steer clear of things I don’t understand. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. But when I make mistakes, I try to fix them as quickly as possible. Also I’m willing to learn. When I started GRS in 2006, I didn’t know what an index fund was. I thought investing was all about picking stocks. Then I learned about passive investing. Today, I have a more nuanced approach.

The post Which financial advice should you trust? appeared first on Get Rich Slowly.

Product Recommendations, Requested By Readers

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One of the most common types of questions I get from readers for the Reader Mailbag is product recommendations. People are thinking about making a significant purchase or are rethinking an ordinary purchase they make frequently and they want to know whether I’ve done the research myself on that type of product and what I’ve concluded.

What I usually do with questions like this is limit them to one or two per mailbag and then directly answer reader questions that go beyond that (provided I’m not completely swamped, of course). This means that there are a lot of specific recommendations that readers have asked for that simply didn’t make it into the mailbag.

Today, I want to fix that. Here are a bunch of specific product types that readers have requested (or that I did a bunch of homework on myself and wanted to share) and my recommendations for a specific product to buy in that category.

Before we get started, though, let’s talk about my basis for making recommendations.

How I Choose Products

There are a few main things that I think about when deciding on any purchase.

First of all, I’m price conscious. This should be obvious, of course. I don’t assume that the more expensive item is better. Rather, I generally seek out the best “bang for the buck,” and that’s often among the lower priced options.

Second, it has to reliably and effectively do the job I want it to do. In other words, it needs to do the tasks I want it to do without lots of extra steps or extra effort, and it needs to do that job consistently every time. I want minimal maintenance and minimal steps when using the product, and I absolutely don’t want failure. This means that there are often some low-end versions of products that I skip over.

Third, if I’m unsure, I tend to rely on the store brand or on the “Best Buy” recommended in Consumer Reports. That usually provides a starting point for purchases. If I find that there’s something lacking in that purchase – which is rare – I’ll move on and try something else based on the above two principles.

Finally, if I’m buying a non-consumable item that’s new to me, I virtually always try to buy it used and as inexpensively as possible. This allows me to figure out whether it’s something I’ll use regularly and what features I personally need in such an item. This isn’t always possible, but if you’re willing to poke around secondhand stores and local buy/sell/trade groups and ask your friends, this often does the trick. It saves me from spending a lot on an item that might not do exactly what I’m hoping or might not click with me like I’m imagining.

Here are a whole bunch of different product categories, along with my recommendations for each of them. Most of these came from reader questions; a few were due to my own recent explorations.

Bath Soap

I generally buy whatever I can find on sale. For example, right now I’m using Duke Cannon soap, which are these giant bars of soap that I was able to buy for $1 each from a store that was going out of business. I bought several of them. I wouldn’t pay the normal retail price for them – they’re pretty expensive per bar – but for $1, they last for a long time.

When I use liquid bath soap, I put it in a pump bottle. This is because the lids on most liquid bath soaps seem to dispense way more soap than I need. Spending a minute or so pouring the liquid soap into a large pump bottle and then keeping the pump bottle in the shower means that I can dispense soap by the pump, getting a much smaller amount that actually does the job rather than watching a bunch of the liquid soap go down the drain. If for some reason a pump bottle isn’t an option for you, then I would lean toward bar soaps, as they seem to get a lot more uses per dollar than liquid soap that’s excessively dispensed.

I’ve only bought one kind of bath that I hated, and I don’t even have to mention it here because it’s no longer sold anywhere in the world as far as I can tell from some internet research. No need to disparage a company that discontinued a bad product and kept the ones that do the job.


The best bang-for-the-buck coffee I’ve found is Eight O’Clock Coffee, original, whole bean. That’s what I’ll grab by default whenever I need coffee and there’s a bean grinder available to me. When I make coffee, I take about one cup of whole beans, grind them on a coarse setting, and then put them in a cold brew coffee maker with four cups of water and sit it in the fridge overnight. I can then heat up the coffee in the morning if I want (I usually prefer it cold, though).

Since the question will inevitably be asked, we use a coffee bean grinder we received as a gift years ago that doesn’t seem to be made any more. If I were to buy one, I would go with the KRUPS Pro burr grinder if I had to have an electric one, or I’d get the manual Whereamoz burr grinder that’s done by hand but quite a bit cheaper. I do not recommend a blade grinder for coffee beans as the blades cause friction that can burn the beans, as I’ve experienced in the past. Blade grinders are definitely cheaper, but it’s not worth the burnt-tasting coffee. The KRUPS model is the least expensive good quality electric burr grinder I’ve seen, and it was recommended to me by a coffee-loving friend who was suggesting a great entry-level grinder.

As for brewing cold brew coffee, I highly recommend this Gourmia cold brew coffee maker, which comes in around $20 and is the one I use (I got mine on sale, but the regular price is quite good). You just put the coarse grounds in the filter insert, add water up to the 32 ounce line, and stick it in the fridge. It takes about ten seconds to clean (at most).


This seemed to be more of a question of what condiments I keep around as staples in the fridge. So, let’s go take a look.

Ketchup, store brand (I can’t tell the difference between it and Heinz)
Mustard, yellow, store brand
Mustard, brown, French’s (we often buy store brand, not sure where we picked this up)
Mustard, brown, Pommery Meaux, which was a gift and is fantastic but I am not paying that much for mustard
Mayonnaise, Hellman’s. I don’t think my local store even has a store brand version of mayo.
Sriracha, Huy Fong (the one with the rooster on the bottle)
Ssam sauce, Momofuku, my wife is addicted to this stuff
Pickles, homemade
Sauerkraut, homemade
Preserved lemon, homemade

I’m not sure what else counts as a condiment.

I hang onto empty condiment squirt bottles. This is because I love making condiment mixes, as described here. When I buy a new bottle of ketchup, for example, I’ll probably use half of it immediately making a new condiment mix to put in the old bottle. Here’s a list of many of the mixes I like; my favorite is “fry sauce.”


I buy whatever’s on sale, usually whenever I notice a three-pack on sale. This is sometimes a warehouse club buy. I don’t have a particular brand preference, as they all seem to do reasonably well. The last bundle I bought was a six pack of Speed Stick Power and those seem to do a really good job (and they were quite cheap).

Dishwasher Detergent

Again, I usually buy the least expensive bulk option at the store. I find that if you take a few basic steps to keep your dishwasher clean and keep soap scum from building up inside it and on the sprayer heads, most dishwasher detergents do more or less the same job. Right now, it looks like we have a bucket of Finish pods under the sink, likely purchased at a warehouse club by my wife sometime recently.

If I have time, I’ll sometimes make an ice cube tray full of my own homemade dishwashing detergent by mixing together a cup of baking soda, a quarter cup of salt, a couple of drops of liquid dish soap, and enough lemon juice so that it turns into something I can mold when mixed thoroughly. I press this mixture into the wells of an ice cube tray, let it dry out for a couple of days, and then pop them out and keep them in a jar near the dishwasher. These are really cheap to make; the only thing keeping me from doing this all the time is that I simply forget to do it and then I need to run a load and I’m out of them.

A great trick for making any dishwashing detergent work well is to regularly clean out your dishwasher. I do this whenever I notice that there are spots on the dishes when they come out of the dishwasher. I just put a cup of vinegar in a spray bottle along with a bit of lemon juice, then I spray all of it all over the inside of the dishwasher and run an empty load. (I actually mentioned this in a frugal life skills article I posted recently.) This makes all dishwasher detergents work quite well, in my experience.

Garbage Bags

Many years ago on The Simple Dollar, I noted that I didn’t like using store brand trash bags because I had many experiences in which they ripped out on me during normal use. I found that, back then, if I filled them much more than half full, they would frequently rip out all over my kitchen or entryway floor, and if I was only filling them halfway, I might as well buy the name brand that allowed me to fill them completely, as it put less plastic in the landfill, meant I took out the trash half as often, and the cost for the name brand bags was barely twice as much per bag as the cheap brands.

Since then, I’ve switched back to store brand trash bags, specifically Target’s Up and Up kitchen and yard drawstring trash bags. I’ve tried a few different store brand bags at retailers I have easy access to and these do the best job for the buck.

I should note that, if you’re a Costco member, Kirkland Signature drawstring bags are even more highly recommended. I was able to pick up a bulk box of both kitchen sized and yard sized bags from a Costco once when shopping at one with a friend (and taking some notes for The Simple Dollar along the way) and I found that they did a great job for a very economical price per bag. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough to a Costco to make this worthwhile.

Kitchen Knives

I generally don’t recommend that people buy a butcher block full of knives for kitchen use. Most people really only need two or three knives in the kitchen – a paring knife, a bread knife, and a chef’s knife will do the trick. Paring knives work well for small things, particularly trimming vegetables and fruit. Chef’s knives work well for cutting larger things, like heads of cabbage or meat, and for chopping. Bread knives work well for, well, cutting bread.

If you’re just buying those three singular knives, the absolute best bang for the buck for those types of knives is Victorinox, on all three counts. The Victorinox chef’s knife is probably the best one I’ve ever used, period, and it’s a fraction of the cost of expensive ones. Their paring knife is amazing and costs less than $8. Their bread knife is excellent and is around $20. You can get those three knives for about $50 and have knives that will last you for many, many years and handle virtually everything you’ll do in a home kitchen.

I would recommend getting a low cost honing steel and honing the chef’s knife and paring knife regularly. This will keep the edge on the blade for a very long time so that it cuts magnificently even many years from now. Here’s a great guide for using a honing steel.


I have this wonderful safety razor that I sometimes use. It’s a Merkur double edged safety razor, for which I have a box of replacement blades. This is a very inexpensive option, as I just replace the blade itself regularly, and the blades cost a penny or two a pop. That’s cheap!

The only problem is that I’ll shave with this a dozen times or so and then I’ll be rushing and I’ll cut myself and start bleeding all over and end up making a huge mess and spending a bunch of time stopping the bleeding and cleaning myself up when I can ill afford it. At that point, I inevitably stick the safety razor back in the closet for several months.

What I typically use is Harry’s subscription razors. I use these in the shower, using my normal shower soap as a “shave cream.” I get my face nice and wet with hot water after washing my hair and using a bit of soap and/or shampoo as shave cream, dive right in with that razor. I have to rinse it a few times in the shower water to get a good shave, but it does the job. I find I need to hone the cartridge after four or five shaves, and then after five or so honings, the cartridge needs to get tossed, so a cartridge usually lasts me a couple of months.

I hone the blades by using a technique called “stropping.” Basically, I take a Harry’s razor with the cartridge in it, pull out an old pair of blue jeans, and then run the razor in the wrong direction down each pant leg ten or so times. That’s enough to get the razor honed so that it works well again. I usually do this when I get out of the shower and put on a pair of old jeans for weekend activities like hiking or working in the yard. I already have the old pair of jeans and I have the razor because I just got out of the shower, so I just do it and it’s done in thirty seconds or so.

So, in terms of “subscribing,” I actually use them at a lower rate than even the slowest rate at which they’ll send me razors. So, I subscribed for a while, then cancelled the subscription and now I have tons and tons of blades that will last me for years.

Aside from an old-fashioned safety razor, which I’m apparently incapable of using without cutting myself badly once a month or so, this is the best “bang for the buck” option I’ve found. You don’t have to “strop” the cartridges if you don’t want, but it does get many, many more uses out of a single cartridge for something that takes maybe 30 seconds every 10 days or so.


The frequent question I’m asked is about shoes for general purpose use – walking, light hiking, occasional sports, and things like that. I’m rarely asked about hardcore athletic shoes or dress shoes.

My current recommendation for the best “bang for the buck” general purpose shoe is the Reebok Royal Astrostorm, which can be found often in the $20-25 range and do a magnificent job for the price. They’re just simple shoes that do the job, and they’re inexpensive enough that you don’t feel bad wearing them out in the mud or in the garden or anything like that. These are the best general purpose $25 shoes I’ve ever seen. I’ve obviously seen better shoes, but they were marginally better at many multiples of the price. These are great for walking on pavement, for low-intensity hiking and trail walking, and for pretty much any non-athletic use you can think of. They won’t pass for dress shoes, but they’re great for everything else, especially at the cost.

I don’t really have a recommendation for women’s shoes, unfortunately. Sarah typically buys “whatever New Balance shoes are on sale” and wears them into oblivion.

Slow Cooker

Easy. Just buy one that’s available at your local secondhand store. Most secondhand stores seem to have slow cookers, so just go in there and pick one.

What if you want to buy new, though? Maybe you can’t find a used one, or you’re buying one for a gift. My pick is the Crock Pot 6 Quart Manual, which clocks in at under $30 and has a large 6 quart crock that can make a huge amount of soup and pretty much any meal you can think of for a large family.

If you are frequently going to be out of the house and want a slow cooker that can automatically switch to a “keep warm” mode at a certain time (keeping food hot enough to keep bacteria at bay, but not so hot that it keeps cooking and burns), I’d probably suggest the Crock Pot 6 Quart with Timer. The timing mechanism adds $20 to the price, but it can make all the difference when it comes to some busy families.


My recommendation here is to play cellular providers off of each other to get new customer discounts as often as you can. Simply be willing to jump from provider to provider as necessary and sometimes use the threat of jumping to your benefit when talking to a cellular provider at the end of a contract.

If you do that, you can usually get a good phone very inexpensively. My strategy has been to get the previous generation iPhone when hopping around like this, because it’s almost always at a significantly lower price than the newest models, but Apple (thus far) has done a great job of supporting older iPhone models for many years. Then, use that phone until either the device isn’t being actively supported, you need a new device because of damage, or there is some change in your current cell phone agreement. At that point, go look for a new cell phone contract.

Pay-as-you-go phones are a great option if your data and voice needs are pretty low, meaning you don’t rely on having a data connection for work and you mostly only use them for emergencies or low-importance socializing. If the most urgent thing you use your phone for outside of life-or-death emergencies is arranging a meetup with some friends, I generally recommend choosing Ting as your provider and using a phone you already have (as it works with most phones). If you don’t have a phone, get one of their refurbished options.

Final Thoughts

As you probably observed, I buy a lot of store brands and bulk items, and I tend to really research what the best “bang for the buck” items are on non-consumable purchases. I actually enjoy figuring out the best option for a particular product type.

As always, if you want my input on a specific product, follow me on Facebook and send me a direct message asking about the type of product. I’ll probably share my findings in an upcoming mailbag or in a future post like this one.

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How couples can create a shared plan for the future

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J.D.’s Intro
Last December, I took a trip to Europe with my cousin Duane. Before I left, I received email from a GRS reader named Matthias. “If you come through Switzerland, let me know,” he said.

The stars aligned so that Matt was able to join us for several hours on a train across the Alps. He brought Swiss chocolate and a bottle of whisky. As we talked — and became pleasantly buzzed — he told me about how he and his wife tackle couple goals together via five-year plans for their future.

“I love this idea,” I told him. “Will you write about it for Get Rich Slowly?” He did. This is Matt’s story about creating a shared vision as a couple. Enjoy!

J.D. and Matthias

In the spring of 2006, I’d been living and working in Taipei, Taiwan for two years and my contract was about to expire. Soon, I’d be returning home to Switzerland.

On a pleasant weekend evening in my downtown flat, my Taiwanese girlfriend and I were reminiscing about all of the wonderful memories we’d made. We waxed nostalgic about the two years we’d enjoyed together. But it dawned on us that if we didn’t make some bold moves, our relationship might be coming to an end.

We opened a bottle of fine wine in order to enhance the depth and wisdom of our conversation. Before long, we’d switched from sweet nostalgia to dreaming about our potential future — together.

How to set couple goals

Imagineering the Future

My girlfriend had just graduated from college and was working in her first job. For my part, I’d just received an offer for my dream job — but it meant I’d have to move back to Switzerland.

The wine was an effective dream enhancer. We let our imaginations loose as we talked about how we could potentially live our lives together. The future took many shapes.

  • Where would we live?
  • What jobs would we work?
  • How could we both be as happy as possible together?

Honestly, it was overwhelming. Our lives three months ahead were like a blank slate. Everything seemed possible! Nothing was certain! Anything could happen!

In order to conceptualize our thoughts and concerns, we decided to write down all of our dreams and goals on yellow stickynotes. This mother of all brainstorming sessions took us half an hour. We each wrote down what was important to us, stuff we’d like to achieve, skills we’d like to acquire — in short, what we’d like to do with our lives in the next few years.

Next, we organized those dreams in terms of feasibility, urgency, and requirements. (To meet certain goals, we had to accomplish others first.) During this process, we tried to keep things fair. We both got the same number of stickynotes. All goals were open to debate, yet at the same time we tried to figure how to best help each other achieving them going forward! Our aim was to work together as a couple.

Step three was to put up an A3 formatted white paper on the wall, draw a timeline from 2006 till 2011 – yes, we were going to plan out the next five years of our life! – and arrange our couple goals in a meaningful way to our life’s “game plan”.

The first five-year plan

Our dreams included things like:

  • Get married.
  • Move to Switzerland.
  • Save for a new home.
  • Learn German.
  • Start a business.
  • Become parents.

In a nutshell, nothing extraordinary — the things young people usually dream of. It was clear that some goals had to be achieved before others. We agreed that pursuing them in a specific order made sense. Then we arranged them accordingly on the timeline.

Becoming a Dream Team

Planning our future was an ecstatic activity. In fact, doing so was the defining evening for our relationship.

That very evening, we actually decided to get married. We decided to chase our dreams together as a team. She was 23 years young; I was 26. Little did we know that this shared activity would help us tremendously on the path to our dream life. We had become a dream team!

We got married in early 2007. My wife started to teach Chinese in Switzerland, and she learned German while I pursued my career in banking. Together, we saved up for a home. In 2011, we became parents and moved back to Asia — this time to Singapore. It was exactly five years after having put up our dream map on a wall. Somehow, we’d achieved every single one of our couple goals.

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” – Earl Nightingale

We got so excited once all of our dreams had became reality that it wasn’t the last time we’ve opened a bottle of wine while plotting our future. It has actually become a habit that we both enjoy and look forward to. We’ve done a new and updated five-year plan three times already. Currently, we’re in the middle of the 2016-2021 cycle.

The third five-year plan

Half-way through, we’ve made good progress toward our current couple goals. By mid-2017 we’d achieved financial independence. I was able to quit my job in Singapore, which gave me time to focus on a new business and on my blog, Financial Imagineer. Our family (now four!) moved back to Switzerland to enjoy more quality time with my parents and extended family.

Creating a Five-Year Plan

Before you can start living your dream life, you have to plan it. (And if you have a partner, you should plan it together.) They say that if you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail. It’s crucial to find the map to your dreams before you go into the woods! A good plan makes all the difference.

With your partner, pick a date to meet about a week or two in the future – preferably a nice evening where you won’t feel pressed for time. Set aside two or three hours. Maybe make it a date night.

You both want to get your brains started in advance on what you want to do with your lives. Don’t share too much with your partner before that evening. Don’t think about limitations or potential difficulties. Dream big! Think outside of the box. Think about what you really would like to achieve in life.

As the big night approaches, prepare the following ingredients.

  • A fine bottle of wine (or any other fine adult beverage of your choice).
  • Two glasses.
  • A large piece of A3 paper. (For you Americans, that’s about 12 inches by 18 inches.)
  • Some small stickynotes.
  • A pen.
  • Two open minds willing to share their dreams.

When the time arrives, tape the A3 paper to the wall, open your wine (or other beverage), and start a conversation about where your thoughts and dreams have drifted over the past couple of weeks.

As you talk, draw an x-axis with the next five years: 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024. We like to use the y-axis to indicate urgency/importance. (The higher the goal is on the paper, the more urgent and/or important it is.)

Next, each person should take ten or twelve stickynotes. On each, write one of your dreams or goals for the next five years.

When you’ve both finished writing down your goals, share them with each other. Share why you believe certain dreams are worth pursuing. Share what kind of time or money or other resources it will take to fulfill each dream. Drink another glass of wine!

After you’ve discussed all of your dreams as a couple, start putting the stickynotes onto your dreamboard. If two (or more) goals conflict with each other, take the time to talk about them. A little friendly, loving debate can be good when developing couple goals.

When you’re done, take a photo of your dreamboard, then “seal the deal” by finsihing your bottle of wine.

Going through this process will allow both of you to express your wildest dreams. Don’t be shy about expressing big ideas. Dream big. Think big. No limits shall be set in this part of the exercise. It’s all about letting your imagination flow freely. This allows both of you to fully understand the wildest dreams of your partner.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

Matthias and Martina

Plan, Take Action, and Persist

The next step is planning how to get where you want to go. Here, you ought to discuss the details. What will it take to accomplish what you want to accomplish? Where and when will you do these things? What do you need to change in order to realize your dreams? As a team, decide how to allocate and invest your (limited) resources.

After you’ve planned, it’s time to take action.

Many people are living their lives on autopilot. The majority of humans will only change course in their lives if they don’t have a choice. Spelling out your dreams and making them into goals helps to switch that autopilot off — but you’ll have to learn to fly by yourself.

You won’t actually be alone, though. You’re a team. This is very powerful because you can become each other’s cheerleaders. Together, taking (bold) action becomes half as frightening. Don’t fear failure. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Then you try again. Fail more, fail better. Don’t stop trying. Don’t get stuck.

Once you’ve agreed to achieving your couple goals together, you’ll have the strongest partner you could ever imagine. Once you take the first baby steps, this bond will only get stronger. On the way towards your new goals, you’ll have to outgrow your comfort zone, you’ll have to learn new skills, you’ll have explore and grow.

It’s paramount to be persistent. A team of two has better odds at succeeding in the long run. So, stick together. Everything is figureoutable!

Think of this dream-teamwork as an alignment of forces or vectors. Only if you’ve discussed and agreed on how to move ahead as a team can you actually drive at full speed towards your future and make your dreams work.

The how, any potential issues or problems will shrink together to merely nothing if you align your lives. Understand your partner, empower him or her, permit each other to pursue dreams and support your choices going forward. Stop wishing, start doing. Be bold, don’t be afraid: Re-imagineer your life!

“Imagination has no age and dreams are forever.” – Walt Disney

Making a Pact

The following photo was taken in Japan in 2017, where we made our last dreamboard together before switching gears in our lives once more. My wife and I had made a pact to build our best life possible.

Making a pact

Time flies.

It’s already been two years since we agreed to pursue our next set of couple goals. We’re almost at half-time through this five-year period and I’m happy to report that we’re getting there! And we’re getting better as a couple. We’ve kept moving towards our dreams even stronger and more committed than before!

We sincerely hope that this article has inspired you to reflect on your dreams and shown you a way to pursue them with your partner. We all have different dreams, different hopes, different ambitions and goals in life.

If you’re in a relationship, don’t shy away from sharing what’s close to your heart. Communicate your innermost dreams, write them down, and agree to pursue them together as a team.

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Nine Frugal Tips I’ve Passed Along While Teaching My Kids Life Skills

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One of the biggest subtle themes of this summer has been teaching our children a number of life skills and encouraging them to practice them. This includes ordinary household tasks like doing laundry, preparing food, doing dishes, cleaning rooms, vacuuming, and so on – things that we all have to do to keep ourselves clean, our clothes clean, and our home clean.

While my children are all several years from living on their own, Sarah and I both believe in the value of them being well-practiced at these life skills when they move out so that all of the other changes that will hit them when they live on their own aren’t nearly as overwhelming and they don’t fall into some bad habits and routines immediately.

As I’ve worked with each of them on learning these life tasks, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of really useful little frugal things we do as a matter of routine that were exposed by my kids when they were asking questions along the way. I actually started making a list of these things, and I wanted to share them with you.

Use cold water when doing most laundry. I basically don’t use hot water on laundry at all any more. Hot water means that all of that water has to be heated up first, eating up energy and dinging our energy bill, plus hot water tends to set stains in clothes. On really dirty non-stained clothes, hot water might be better at getting them clean, but unless you’re putting clothes in the washer that’s just caked with dirt and filth, it’s not necessary to get clothes clean.

Just use the “cold/cold” setting for all laundry in your washer. This means it’s using cold water for the wash and cold water for the rinse, meaning that none of that water is heated, meaning that your energy bill stays lower.

Measure the laundry soap and use the lowest amount. The measuring spoon or measuring cup is there for a reason. Don’t just dump in an amount that seems okay and call it good enough – you’re almost always using way more than is necessary. Instead, actually measure the right amount. If you’re using a plastic spoon or measuring cup and measuring liquid, you can actually just toss it into the load and let it run, retrieving it when you move clothes to the dryer, and all of the liquid detergent will be gone.

When you’re using the right amount of cleaning agent, you’re spending a lot less money on laundry soap and still getting everything nice and clean.

A further tip: just get a couple of tablespoon measuring spoons, a measuring cup, and a large resealable container that can hold several cups of powder. Mix one cup of borax, one cup of washing soda, and one cup of flakes in the container, and shake it thoroughly. Use one flat tablespoon of this mix per load and you’re good to go. This will last for about 50 loads; just add a cup of borax, a cup of washing soda, and a cup of flakes to the container whenever it’s low and shake it thoroughly again.

Use the “permanent press” setting on the dryer for anything that you don’t want wrinkled. Whenever you’re drying shirts or dress pants, the “permanent press” setting is the best setting to use on the dryer. It runs at a lower heat setting and actually stops circulating hot air near the end of the cycle. This means that the dryer is using less energy for the load, saving you money, and actually doing less damage to the shirts and pants (you’ll notice this in the lint trap, where there will be less lint).

Unless you’re drying thick items that don’t really care about wrinkles, things like blankets or jeans or sweatshirts, use the “permanent press” setting to save energy and reduce wrinkles. You’ll also save time (and a bit of energy) due to a lot less use of the ol’ iron.

Cook a bunch of meals on Sunday afternoon so you don’t have to worry about it during the week. This can be as complicated or as easy as you want to make it, but it works every time.

One thing I really like to do is to make a really big pot of soup on Sundays, have it for dinner, and then fill up a bunch of containers with that soup. Some of the containers go in the freezer, while a few go in the fridge for meals during the week. We’ll often have that soup for dinner again on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sometimes, I’ll make a casserole or other meal in a pan that’s intended to be baked in the oven for Sunday dinner, except that I’ll make four pans of it at once and pop the other three in the freezer, using the fourth for dinner. The pans are usually much more than we’d eat at a single sitting, so I’ll take the leftovers and put them in individual meal containers in the fridge for either an evening meal on Tuesday or Wednesday or individual lunches.

The point is that meal prep doesn’t have to be this enormous all-day encompassing thing. I do that kind of meal prep once in a while, but most of the individual and family sized meals in our fridge and freezer are just extras from meals I’d normally make on a weekend.

During the week, it’s often just a matter of pulling a meal out of the freezer one day, letting it thaw for a day, and then finishing the cooking the next evening. For example, if I’m pulling out the lasagna I made three weeks ago on a Tuesday morning, I can let it thaw for about 36 hours and then finish baking it on Wednesday evening. That way, all that I have to do for meal prep on Wednesday evening is pop the lasagna in the oven for 75 minutes or so, make a simple salad, and have the kids set the table.

Buy store brand stuff at the store if it’s an option and only move to other brands if the store brand fails you. Whenever I go shopping with the kids, I make a point of buying the name brand stuff. Usually, three or four times during the trip, I’ll point out how the store brand is way cheaper than the name brand, and then I’ll ask them if the store brand we use at home does a good job or not.

The vast majority of the time, the store brand does a wonderful job. About the only thing I used to avoid in store brand form was trash bags and I recently switched back to store brand ones as they seem to have drastically increased in quality as of late, putting them more on par with name brand bags.

Hand soap, trash bags, dish soap, toilet paper, sugar, salt, flour – all of those kinds of things and many more are bought in store brand form around here.

If bread seems really stale, run a bit of water over the outside and pop it in the oven. This has saved countless loaves of homemade bread and whole store-bought loaves of bread, bringing them back from being turned into croutons or breadcrumbs and making them edible again. Just moisten the outside of the bread, toss it in the oven at 400 F for about seven minutes, and the bread will be like it should be.

This seems to make both baguettes and crunchy breads far crunchier and also makes softer breads less crunchy. It just rescues them from being stale. This simple tip has nudged me toward making more homemade bread simply because far less of it goes to waste.

If you notice white spots on your dishes that would make you want to run them again, first run an empty load with a cup of white vinegar and, if you have it, a few teaspoons of citric acid or lemon juice. Seriously. What I do is put the white vinegar (and mix in the citric acid or lemon juice if I have any) in a spray bottle and just spray all over the insides of the dishwasher, everywhere, until the spray bottle won’t spray any more, then I dump the last few dribbles in the place where the soap goes, and then just run an empty load without soap. This is way, way cheaper than re-running your dishes and glasses all the time.

The reason for this is that eventually soap will build up in your dishwasher and the vinegar and citric acid will get rid of that soap buildup. Doing this as soon as you see white spots on any dishes will save you a ton of money and the cost of lots of extra dishwasher loads, plus it’ll extend the life of your dishwasher.

Better yet, just make your own dishwasher “pods” in an ice cube tray. This is a good way to wash your dishes and also keep soap buildup at bay. Mix a cup of baking soda and a quarter of a cup of salt. Add two teaspoons of liquid dish soap, then a teaspoon of lemon juice. This should form a thick slush that you can easily mold – if it’s too dry, add a bit more lemon juice, but if it’s too wet, add a bit more baking soda. Push this mix into the wells of an ice cube tray, then let it dry for 48 hours. After that, just pop out a “cube” and use that to wash your dishes. These seem to do a great job, but you might decide it’s less work to just use the vinegar-citrus spray every few months instead.

Aim the dirty side of all dishes toward the center of the bottom of the dishwasher. In most dishwashers, that’s where the main source for the cleaning jets is, so you’re going to want the dirty side of your dishes facing it. This is a simple rule for remembering how to load a dishwasher well so that everything in there gets clean. Just face everything toward the middle and the bottom of the dishwasher and try to not ever have a dirty face directly and completely blocked by another item.

This simple rule makes it easy for almost anyone to figure out how to load a dishwasher, and a properly loaded dishwasher is one that will only have to run once to wash everything inside. You’ll have a lot fewer dishes that need additional runs or hand washing to be truly clean.

If you notice an air draft, you should eventually seal it up, but for now, just toss a sweatshirt in front of it. While the best solution to a draft is to either caulk the window or put a weather strip around a door or a rubber strip inside the door, that’s not always going to work as an immediate solution to the problem. Instead, just toss a sweatshirt on the problem area. Sweatshirts do a great job of temporarily blocking the flow of air until you have some free time to fix it properly.

I did this recently with a discovered air leak in our home that was causing a noticeable amount of warm air to come in on a really hot day. I just grabbed a sweatshirt and put it in front of the leak. A few days later, I fixed it properly when I had the right stuff – it only took a few minutes. However, tossing that sweatshirt in place saved us a lot of energy in the interim for very little effort.

Teaching the kids basic life skills is a rewarding adventure, but it’s also a nice way to remind myself of all of the little tweaks I’ve built up over the years to keep food, household, and energy costs low, and when I get to pass those ideas on to my own kids as a good way of doing things, that’s all the better.

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Lentil Casserole, Dish Soap, and Frugal Filters

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My mother-in-law makes this absolutely delicious lentil casserole. I’m not sure of her exact recipe, but I know from home experimentation that this is a close approximation:

Lentil Casserole

1 pound dry lentils
2 cups water
1 large can diced tomatoes
1 cup diced bell pepper
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced mushrooms (optional)
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons “savory” seasoning (equal parts thyme, cumin, coriander, paprika, black pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano, with two parts salt)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 375 F. Mix all ingredients except cheese thoroughly and spread in 9″ by 13″ baking dish evenly. Cover with aluminum foil (or other cover) and bake for 105 minutes. Add shredded cheese evenly on top and remove aluminum foil. Bake for 5-10 more minutes until cheese is thoroughly melted. Serve.

Great.. So What About It?

Several years ago, I had a minor medical issue that forced me to make some dietary changes. My mother-in-law, being the treasure she is, spent time figuring out recipes that would be in line with my needed dietary changes and still be enjoyable for the rest of the family, and in that process she came across this lentil casserole recipe.

It turned out to be a pretty big hit, and now it’s in the regular rotation of dishes that she makes when we come to visit. Everyone likes it at least reasonably well, and I particularly love it because it just hits this perfect savory taste and texture that I really enjoy.

A few years ago, I asked her where she came up with the recipe and she started pulling cookbooks out of various places. They had Post-It notes and other paper scraps thrown in to mark specific recipes.

From what I was able to understand, she simply goes through and marks recipes that are both inexpensive and seem tasty, and preferably ones that are easy. With cookbooks that have hundreds of recipes each, it’s usually easy to find recipes that hit all three criteria.

When I added a few specific dietary requirements, she went through her marked recipes and noted which ones met those new requirements as well, which still left her with a pretty significant list.

The Frugal Filter

What I found interesting about this process, and why I felt writing about it was worthwhile, is that “low cost” was really only one of her filters when choosing recipes to try. If a recipe didn’t seem tasty to her or to the people she was making it for, she didn’t bother. If a recipe seemed overly complicated, she didn’t bother. She did not simply go for the first recipe that was “cheap.”

I point this out because the idea that “inexpensiveness” is the primary or only filter people use when spending money is a very common misunderstanding of frugality.

If “the less expensive, the better” is your main filter for processing choices, then you’re being a cheapskate and you’re probably making a lot of suboptimal choices. You are most definitely not being frugal, and if you adopt that approach in life, you’re quickly going to head down a path of misery unless you are wired very differently in terms of internal rewards than most people.

Here’s the truth about frugality, at least as I see it.

When most of us are called upon to make a decision with a lot of options – and that’s how a lot of decisions are in the modern world – we typically use a handful of filters almost instinctively to quickly reduce the number of choices. That’s really the only efficient way to make a lot of modern life manageable. Without a bunch of instinctive filters, we’d go into lockdown just going through the supermarket or strolling through Target or deciding what website to visit or what movie to watch or what book to read or how to get to work.

Let’s say I’m at the store and I see “dish soap” on my list. I head to the section with dish soap and, lo and behold, there are a ton of options. If I stand there looking at all of the options, I’m never going to make a decision.

So, I start applying filters very quickly, almost without thinking. I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Right there, we’ve cut things down to three or four options to actually look at.

All frugality really says is this: once you’ve applied those filters, apply another one where you seek the lowest price per use among those you’d choose from anyway. That’s it.

Now, that’s not quite the end of the road. If you start applying a frugal filter to your decisions, it’s a good idea to give careful thought to the instinctive filters you’re already applying.

Let’s use that dish soap example again. Once I started really buying into frugality, I found that applying the frugal filter to the remaining choices usually pointed me toward a good choice, but I found myself wondering why I had eliminated some of the others from consideration. I had instinctively eliminated the store brand. Why? I couldn’t think of a good reason for it. I had instinctively eliminated a couple of other brands, too, and I wasn’t sure why. I often used Consumer Reports as a tool to avoid dodgy brands, but why not use it to elevate a few good ones instead and eliminate the others?

So, my original filtering process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

When I first started being frugal and applying the “lowest price” filter, the filtering process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one is the least expensive.

After thinking about it a little more and questioning a lot of my assumptions, my filtering process for buying dish soap now looks a lot like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. Consumer Reports says that these three brands are consistently good. I know the store brand is good, too, so I’ll include that. I don’t like lavender scent, so I’ll toss out these two. Of the three that are left, this one is the least expensive.

I like to think of frugality this way: frugality is about adding a “lowest cost” filter to your already-existing purchasing decisions, but it’s also an encouragement to rethink the filters you’ve always relied on to make purchases.

Back to the Lentil Casserole

This is basically the same idea that my mother-in-law applied to her choice to make lentil casserole for the first time for all of us.

She had a ton of recipes in front of her. She needed to filter them quickly. So, she applied a number of filters.

One was the “frugal filter”: it had to be cheap.

On top of that were a few others, which she used to determine what would make for a good meal: would people like it? would it be relatively easy to make? are the ingredients easy to acquire? There’s also the dietary filter: does it match Trent’s dietary concerns at the moment?

Here’s what’s worth noting: all of those filters are based on some value that’s important to her, much like the example of filters applied to buying dish soap.

She cares about her financial future, so she uses the it has to be cheap filter.

She wants to make a meal her family will enjoy because she cares about them, so she uses the will people like it filter.

She wants to have free time to spend with the family when they visit, so she uses the is it relatively easy to make filter.

She has relatively low access to ingredients and wants to, if possible, rely on things she already has on hand, so she uses the are the ingredients easy to get filter.

She cares about my health, so she uses the can Trent eat it filter.

After all of those filters are applied, she’s left with a small pool of choices, and from that she can make a more nuanced decision.

Low price is just one thing of importance among many in the things considered by a frugal person. It is not the only thing considered, nor is it the primary thing considered. The choice of lentil casserole is about a wide range of the things she cares about, not just money.

Adopting Frugal Behavior Is a Sign of Changing Values

As I noted earlier, however, adding a “low price” filter due to a fresh desire to be frugal is usually a sign that you’re probably going to reconsider a lot of the other filters you commonly use as well.

People don’t wake up one morning and decide to start cutting costs. There’s usually something going on in their lives, an ongoing change, that brings them to the conclusion that they need to apply different approaches to their finances.

For some, it might simply be a result of growing a bit older. Maybe you had a child or you’re now married or in a serious relationship. Maybe a career change is happening and your passions are changing. Maybe you’ve learned new things about the world and your perceptions of many things are shifting.

Whatever it might be, a renewed approach to frugality is very frequently a sign of shifting values in other areas of life, which means that it’s a great time to reconsider those other filters you use for making decisions.

For example, for me, adopting a more frugal and financially responsible mindset was directly due to a simultaneous significant change in my work environment, the birth of my first child, and the realization that some of my long term goals weren’t coming true. That triggered a lot of changes in terms of how I saw the world, and it was in that moment of internal rethinking of life that I moved in a very frugal direction.

However, there were many more values changing than just my money use – frugality was just one thing changing as a result of my changing values. I was now considering my child – a lot. I was now much more concerned about my own mental well being. I was feeling like I needed to make a career change that better matched the life I wanted to live. I was feeling like the ways I was spending my time and money weren’t in line with what I wanted out of life. Those things were just the start.

Frugality emerged from those changing values, but there were shifts in lots of things I cared about, and those shifts encouraged me to think carefully about all of the filters I used to make decisions, not just buying things, but how I used my time, my attention and focus, my energy, and so on.

Looking at Values Isn’t Easy or Obvious

The thing is, thinking about things in terms of what you value isn’t always easy or obvious. Quite often, we see the change in what we value by noticing that something makes sense in a way that it didn’t make sense before, or that something that used to seem like the right thing to do isn’t the right thing any more.

Sometimes, we just accept those changes without a second thought. At other times, we find those little nudges a bit troubling and ignore them until they become so overwhelming that we have to pay attention.

I’ll give you a great example of this. About nine months before my financial turnaround began, I was already noticing a lot of elements in my life that I was unhappy with. I could see a lot of little things in my life that were bringing me down, but I still wasn’t quite there. I wasn’t quite ready to change things. It took an even bigger impact, an inability to pay the bills, to bring about real action and change.

What I’ve learned since then is that when you start getting those nudges, pay attention. It means that your values are changing or something else subtle is going on that’s not in line with what you want out of life, and you’re far better off figuring it out when it’s a molehill than when it’s a mountain.

But how can you see this? I usually see it by looking real close at a decision I’ve made that I’m not happy with or, sometimes, a decision I’m far happier with than I expected.

Look at the Filters

Sometimes I’ll do something and then, a few minutes later or a few days or maybe a month or two later, I’ll think to myself, “I messed that up.” Occasionally, When I have that feeling, I know that something has shifted in my values that isn’t yet reflected in how I’m making decisions or behaving, and that means I need to figure it out or I’m going to keep screwing up. But how do I do this?

For me, the most effective way to do this is to look really close at that decision. This technique is often known as an “after action report;” here’s a summary of the general concept.

Basically, I try, to the best of my ability, to figure out exactly why I made that decision without judging it, then I go through and judge my reasoning. In other words, I try to figure out what filters I used to make that decision, then I question all of those filters.

I do that kind of thinking when I’m driving around or, sometimes, when I’m writing a personal journal entry. I just break it down as much as I possibly can, almost to a comical level, and then I look at all of those pieces.

So, let’s roll back to that dish soap example one more time. My old school decision making process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

Let’s say I later realize that the end decision I made was a bad one. Where did my decision making process go wrong? I’ll then rip that decision making process to shreds and try to tease out all of those filters.

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again.
I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them.
I prefer lemon-scented soap.
Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad.
Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

Was the problem that I chose a big container? Probably not.

Was the problem that I skipped over certain brands? Maybe. Why did I skip over them? What’s wrong with Brand X and Brand Y? This thought process led to the revelation that store brands aren’t really bad after all.

Was the problem that I insisted on lemon-scented soap? Maybe. Why did I insist on that? What’s wrong with scentless soap, or other scents? This thought process made me realize that I actually just didn’t like one or two scents, not that I particularly loved lemon.

Was the problem that I used Consumer Reports to eliminate bad brands? Maybe. Why did I do that? Why not use Consumer Reports for recommendations rather than eliminations? This thought process made me rethink how I used consumer reviews, focusing more on the common elements of positive reviews rather than one or two outlying negative reviews.

Was the problem with my choice between the final three? Well, why did I decide to choose the one that I did? Maybe I simply left out something I really care about in this final decision making process. This thought process made me realize that “low price” really should be in there, because otherwise I am spending more money and not really gaining anything I care about.

This might seem like obsessive nuance, but it really isn’t. If, by doing this, I reset some filters that I use over and over and over again for all kinds of decisions, then I am going to consistently make good ones in my life. I won’t come home with a bunch of purchases and not really understand why I made them or where all the money went. I won’t be troubled by having wasted a bunch of time on things that weren’t important to me. Or, at least, I’ll fall into those situations a lot less often.

I find that when I think about those filters in this deep way and conclude that there’s a better way to do it, it doesn’t take a whole lot of reinforcement or repetition to use the better filter.

In other words, doing this every once in a while for a single seemingly minor decision often ends up making a lot of decisions in my life a lot better in very short order. I’m far from perfect at this and I sometimes don’t evaluate the decisions that I should be looking at, but I know that when I actually do a deep dive on a poor (or a surprisingly good) decision, I end up doing everything better.

Again, a sudden urge to spend less is often a sign that you should be doing a few of these deep dives. It’s a sign that your values are changing in some way, and this is a perfect time to look at things with fresh eyes and make sure that the choices you’re making really are in line with what you care about now rather than in the past.

Making Better Decisions

A frugal and financially smart person is simply a person whose decision making filters include a desire to keep costs low and avoid unnecessary purchases. It is not their only filter, just one among many. Having said that, a person who values that kind of thinking often has other filters that line up well alongside it, because those filters are based on deep personal values that we have.

For example, frugal people often want to get the best value item, which doesn’t always mean the lowest cost item. It means the item that does the best job for the dollar, and that usually means knowing which items actually perform well and do the job you want. That goes beyond just trusting a brand name, because often the product that does the best job for the dollar is a “no name” product, a store brand.

A frugal person usually cares deeply about something else in their lives as well, whether it’s personal freedom or keeping their stress low or a strong spiritual life or philosophical stance. Often, their frugality is a way of expressing that value – for example, many spiritual and philosophical traditions hold frugality dear – or a way of achieving that value – frugality is an effective way to lower the daily “background stress” of life.

Those values are expressed in many ways, and the filters we use to make decisions are a powerful one. Those filters also provide a window into our values – they work both ways.

So, whenever you feel like you’ve made a spending misstep, or you get a sense that you’re making decisions that aren’t in line with what you really care about, or you feel like your life is running off the tracks of what you want from it, dive deep into some of those errant decisions, whether they’re big ones (like where to live or what job to take or whether to get married) or little ones (like what to make for supper or what kind of dish soap to buy).

You’ll often see the problem very quickly, and fixing that broken filter can make an enormous difference.

Good luck.

The post Lentil Casserole, Dish Soap, and Frugal Filters appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Books with Impact: Atomic Habits

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The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that if you want to succeed at any life improvement goal, you have to alter your normal daily routine such that every single day naturally produces some progress toward your goal.

I was really able to observe this through my own personal experience with personal finance. I spent a lot of time during the early years of The Simple Dollar trying to reduce my burn rate and also automating as much of my savings plan as possible. The end result is that I go through what feels like a normal day right now and I simply move closer to my big goal of financial independence.

Over the years, I’ve tried to understand what made us succeed at our big personal finance goals while having a mixed bag of results at other personal goals in our lives. The two biggest runaway successes in my life (aside from my marriage and my children) were the personal finance changes we made and the construction of a successful business. Knowing that it was the daily routine that was at the heart of those successes, why did things work so well for those goals and flop with other goals? What was the difference?

The book Triggers, which was an earlier entry in the Books with Impact series, provided some insights. That book is all about correcting behaviors, and behaviors are simply made up of the things we do that are triggered by our internal and external environments. The book focuses on finding ways to alter one’s internal and external environments so that better behaviors naturally occur, and the system it provides is extremely powerful at doing so, particularly when it comes to altering specific things you notice that you’d like to do differently.

The system in Triggers is really powerful for passive and reactive changes you want to make to yourself – things that are very automatic and internal – but it’s not as good at stimulating proactive change – when you want to actually make doing something normal. For example, Triggers works well if you want to, say, eat X instead of Y or eat less period, but it doesn’t work as well if you’re trying to add a new habit to your life.

That’s where Atomic Habits by James Clear comes in, and I think it’s a great complement to Triggers.

The key idea behind Atomic Habits is that big goals are good for some inspiration and a bit of motivation and perhaps for setting some general direction, but goals alone won’t make you change. Rather, Clear’s book focuses on systems – very simple daily actions that constitute a step in the right direction toward your big goal – and elevating those systems and daily steps to being the main focus for change.

Let’s dig in.

The Fundamentals: Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference

Many people, when they think about change, they think about having to make some radical shift in their life to accomplish a huge goal. “I want to lose 100 pounds this year, so I’m going to have to live off of carrots and move into the gym.” That’s not sustainable. Very, very few people are going to be able to do that.

Clear argues on behalf of a systematic approach. Big goals are fine as a tool for figuring out your direction going forward, but what he’s interested in is defining the direction in which you want things to change and then coming up with a system that involves daily action that nudges you in that direction, and then focusing entirely on the system.

So, rather than having that stark “I want to lose 100 pounds this year” goal and planning around that, Clear advocates coming up with a system of very simple daily action that takes you toward that goal. For example, you might focus on something like a daily calorie counting goal or simply maintaining a one-meal-a-day or an intermittent fasting routine.

The point is that you have to have a daily system in place that takes you a step closer each day to your goal, and it has to be a system you can stick to. If you have that system, all you have to do is focus on that system and the goal becomes inevitable.

Clear offers a ton of examples of this in various fields. They all boil down to the same thing: a 1% improvement in your daily routine adds up over time and tends to have a multiplicative effect for many goals. You want to lose weight and feel more energetic? Do a very small amount of exercise daily and tweak your dietary routine just a bit. You will gradually start losing weight and as that starts to happen, you’ll find yourself naturally becoming more active because you weigh less and you’re more fit. This results in more daily calories burnt and if you’re sticking to your tweaked routine, your movement toward a healthier body will accelerate.

A similar phenomenon is true for things like knowledge acquisition. If you spend, say, 30 extra minutes studying each day, you won’t see much of a change at first, but over time, the extra studying you did earlier will enable you to dig further and further into the subject, allowing you to build knowledge and connections and skills at a continuously accelerating rate.

Often, progress like this has a “tipping point,” in that you won’t notice much progress for a while and then suddenly the visible changes come in a flood. I love Clear’s ice cube analogy here, which he discusses on page 20 of the hardcover version of the book. Imagine that you’re watching an ice cube and each day, your system turns up the temperature by one degree. You start at -10 F, and then the next day you go up to -9 F, and there’s no change. -8, -7, -6, no change in the ice cube. Day after day after day, no change. But then, one day, you reach 32 F and suddenly the cube starts to melt – radical change, and you can see all of that effort paying off. That’s why it’s a good idea to trust your system for a long while. Do the homework and planning to make sure your system is good and then give it plenty of time and trust so that you don’t give up before your ice cube melts.

So, how do you make an effective system? How do you come up with very basic daily habits that can be made into a routine that you’ll stick with and will guide you meaningfully toward your goal? That’s most of what the rest of the book is about.

This is the point in the book where the material overlaps the most with Triggers. They both identify a structure in which our normal behaviors become a cycle, each book offering up a few variations. In the case of Atomic Habits, Clear breaks habits down into a four part cycle: cue, craving, response, and reward. The end result of this is that we eventually associate the reward (and, to an extent, the response) with the cue.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re checking your email and this makes you a bit anxious and stressed (cue). You start to crave something that will alleviate your stress and the thing you find that’s convenient is chewing your nails (response). This takes the edge off your feelings of anxiety (reward), and thus you start to associate checking your email with chewing your nails.

A good system identifies and disrupts some of those associations in your life. For example, if you respond to certain cues by eating, a good system will disrupt those relationships.

Clear identifies four “laws,” one for each of the elements in that cycle (cue, craving, response, reward). Together, strategies that address all of these elements will make for a great system that will bring about the changes you want in your life.

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious

The first piece of the puzzle is to address cues, and the place to start with that is to figure out the things in our life that serve as cues. Clear recommends making a giant list of all of our daily habits as a first step in identifying what kinds of cues actually drive us. You’ll find that there are lots of cues that exist in our life, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t.

This is where I feel like Triggers and Atomic Habits diverge. Triggers focuses much more on dealing with habits with cues we don’t control, whereas Atomic Habits deals with habits where we can control the cues.

The basic recipe that Clear proposes is that if we want to establish a new habit, it should follow a recipe:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

I will meditate at 7 AM for one minute in my kitchen.

I will study Spanish for 20 minutes at 6 PM in my bedroom.

I will preheat the oven for dinner the moment I walk in the door from work in my kitchen.

I will wash my car on the first Friday of every month on my way home from work at the car wash on Main Street.

You get the idea. A very specific behavior, at a very specific time, and a very specific location.

A system is essentially a handful of these habits that are all pushing you in the same overall direction. Often, these habits can be stacked – you do a handful of these habits at the same time in the same location so that they effectively become one habit.

I will preheat the oven and then meditate for one minute when I walk in the door from work each day in my kitchen.

I will wash my car and air up my tires on the first Friday of every month on my way home from work at the car wash on Main Street.

This sets the stage for things like morning routines, where you do a certain routine of specific actions upon waking up, or an evening routine or a before-bed routine.

Another element of making cues obvious is to make your environment conducive to remembering them. If you need an item to perform a habit, put that item in the right place so that you find it there. It’s the same reason you keep your toothbrush by the sink in the bathroom. Do the same thing for every habit that you have – put the stuff you need right where you’re going to do it so that there’s minimal pushback against doing it. Set it out where you can see it.

Eventually, the habit gets associated with a lot of elements in the environment, and when that happens, it becomes more and more and more natural and ingrained in your life.

Similarly, if you want to reduce a bad habit, remove the cues for it from your environment. Throw away the junk food and the cigarettes. Cut up your credit card. Find a different commute. Remove the cues at all costs.

The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive

The problem with many new habits is that they’re unpleasant. We don’t necessarily want to do things in this new and different way, for any number of reasons. Maybe we don’t want to exercise. Maybe we don’t want to cook meals at home. Maybe we don’t want to put aside time for prayer.

The way around this is to tie that difficult new habit to something we want to do via habit stacking.

For example, let’s say we have a habit we want to establish like “At 7 AM each morning, I will exercise for 20 minutes in the living room.” You don’t really want to exercise, so that’s going to be hard to establish.

So, instead, establish this second habit. “After I exercise for 20 minutes, I’ll have a cup of coffee and sit down with my phone to read the news for 15 minutes.”

That second part sounds really pleasant. If you tack it on to the first habit by linking them together, you utilize the craving you have for the enjoyable part by using it as a carrot to get through the challenging part.

You can also make a new habit feel more attractive by making it feel more normal. We find ourselves taking most of our behavioral cues from three different groups: the close (those we spend a lot of time with), the many (the mass of humanity), and the powerful (those in a strong and/or influential position). Putting effort into tuning each of these groups in your life can make your new systems seem much more natural and supported.

Spend more time with friends who do similar things to your new system. Look for media coverage of people doing things like what you’re trying to do. Look for role models who are doing similar things as well. If you surround yourself with those elements, your new habits and systems feel more natural.

If you want to eliminate a bad habit, apply the inverse of all of this to it. Make it unattractive. Focus on the negatives of the habit and the positives of not doing it. Penalize yourself whenever you do it by associating a penalty of some kind. Look for negative role models associated with that habit – people who ended up in a bad place because of the habit.

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy

The more difficult and intrusive a new habit is, the harder it is going to be to add it to your life. A habit of one minute of meditation is easier to add to your life than an hour of meditation. A habit of one pushup is easier to add to your life than a habit of an hour of exercise.

Clear suggests utilizing this understanding and paring every single habit down to a two minute action. You absolutely should make your daily habit something like “meditate for two minutes” or “read one page” instead of “meditate for an hour” or “read fifty pages.” Why? You’re much more likely to actually do it each day if the habit is less intrusive and burdensome.

The nice part about such habits is that you usually feel inclined to do more of them if there is time. You don’t have to read more than one page, but if you have nothing going on in the next half an hour, why not read ten pages? You don’t have to do more than one push-up, but if you’re down there, why not do a set of ten and then maybe another set of ten? You don’t have to meditate for more than a minute, but you’ve got time, so you set that timer for fifteen minutes.

The point is not to do a very tiny trivial task, but to simply master the art of showing up. If you meditate for one minute a day, meditation is now a daily part of your life and you can choose to meditate for longer if you wish.

Another suggestion that Clear offers is to write down your tiny habit (“Atomic Habit,” perhaps?) and then write down a few bigger versions of it. For example, your super-easy daily habit might be to do one push-up, but what about doing ten? A set of fifteen, a set of ten, then a set of five? A set of 70% of your max, then 60%, then 50%, then 40%, then 30%? The habit is all about doing the easiest version, but you have some options to choose from once you “show up.”

If you want to take it even further, automate that habit if possible. This is a great way to approach a lot of personal finance goals, as you can easily automate savings plans and extra loan payments with online banking. You can set your phone to go to silent from 8 AM to noon and then from 12:30 PM to 5 PM. You can set up a water purifying filter right on or under your faucet so that having good drinking water is practically automatic. In terms of killing negative habits, you can install a website blocker that keeps you from visiting social media.

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying

Clear argues here that if you want to get a habit to stick, it needs to feel immediately satisfying. If it doesn’t feel good, then you’re probably not going to stick with it for very long, because discipline only lasts so long. The first three laws are all about getting you to do the habit for the first few times; this is about sticking with it over the long haul.

Clear’s big universal suggestion for all habits is to track them. Keep track of the fact that you executed your habit each day and perhaps a number associated with the effort. Try to start building a chain of Xs or of non-zero numbers and you’ll eventually start feeling great satisfaction from that chain and want to keep adding to it. Doing something two days in a row feels good; doing something 100 days in a row feels amazing.

This kind of tracking becomes an addendum to your habit. “After I do my push-up(s), I’ll record how many I did in my spreadsheet.” “After I read, I’ll record my current page count on Goodreads.” “After I put away my dishes, I’ll record what I ate.”

What if you break that chain? Start a new chain as quickly as possible. One misstep isn’t a problem; two missteps is the beginning of a new negative habit.

Eventually, continuing the chain becomes incredibly satisfying, and it can be enough of a lure to keep you doing the habit even when you don’t want to. We all have days where we don’t want to exercise, but pushing through and keeping that chain alive is really rewarding.

The reverse is true when trying to undo a bad habit – you want to make it unsatisfying. A good way to do this is with an accountability partner, where you have to tell that person if you screwed up, or perhaps with a promise to announce your screw-ups on social media. That sounds like misery, so it’s a strong nudge to stay on a good path.

Advanced Tactics: How to Go from Being Merely Good to Being Truly Great

The last, rather short section of the book is essentially a number of short essays on building habits that really don’t fit into the above sections.

For example, Clear goes into a discussion about finding habits that are going to be incredibly transformative for you. One thing he suggests doing is finding things that you enjoy doing that others view as work and using habits to build your skill in that area. Also, look for things that make you lose track of time and things that come naturally to you. Habits centered around those often end up leading to fantastic results, as you become very good at something that other people struggle with. It can be a skill that you can easily make money from.

Another suggestion Clear offers is to find that happy middle point between something being so simple that you’re bored with it and so difficult that you fail at it. You want it to be challenging, but not so difficult you have no chance at it. Don’t lift 5 pounds, but don’t lift 1,000 pounds. Find the spot in the middle that works well for you.

If you’re struggling with being bored in your habit, find some way to add variability to it. For example, I find that rather than having a set fitness plan, I get a lot of value out of doing a random set of exercises each day. My fitness “habit” is just doing the Darebee daily exercises, then doing a random set of taekwondo practices from an app I set up on my phone. That way, it doesn’t feel the same every day. I also switch up my stretching routine regularly; if it begins to feel dull, I find a new one to do, ideally one that’s fairly challenging but not impossible. The goal is to stretch every morning, not to do that specific routine every morning.

Clear also points to the value of developing a handful of synergistic habits, things that actually nudge each other to better results than you would have achieved with a single habit on its own. For example, I stretch, do a bodyweight exercise routine, and do some taekwondo practice every day, and those actually aid each other and make each one easier and more effective. The same is true for habits like saving money for the future and being frugal with your spending – they aid each other and the more you put into frugality, the more you can save.

Final Thoughts

I found that the advice in this book works best for goals and habits that you can approach with very clear and specific daily activities, like a daily exercise routine or writing in a journal each day or meditating each day or doing a load of laundry each day or simply getting out of bed and showering each day. If you have a big goal that can be approached with systematic daily small habits like these, Clear’s advice is tremendous.

However, it doesn’t really hit home as well when you’re trying to change more nebulous things about yourself, like your proclivity to eat out of boredom at random moments throughout the day or your shyness around other people. If the thing you want to improve about yourself is best described with a “to be” verb, this system doesn’t work quite as well. I think that Triggers is a much better system for this.

Over the last few months, I’ve been using both systems in my life. I have a bunch of “atomic habits” I’m tracking in a notebook, along with a bunch of “daily questions” (from Triggers). I will likely show off my system in a future article once I give it a few more months to really refine it.

I think if you’re struggling to make changes in your life, both books are well worth reading and both systems are worth applying in your life, but some elements will click better with some people than others.

Good luck!

The post Books with Impact: Atomic Habits appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Feeling the Burn Rate

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When I was a little kid, my family really didn’t spend much money at all. We raised a lot of our own food with two huge gardens (and a lot of canning), my father’s side gig as a small-scale commercial fisherman, and a lot of chickens in a chicken pen. We didn’t have cable and just enjoyed five channels that we could pick up on the antenna (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox). We lived in a pretty small house in a rural area. Our cars were bought used and driven into oblivion, then replaced with another used car. We didn’t have cell phones or home internet or Netflix or anything like that. My mom bought almost everything in store brand form when she went grocery shopping.

In short, the actual annual expenses were pretty low. I’m willing to bet that they added up to less than $20,000 per year.

At the same time, however, my parents didn’t earn a lot of money. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, which certainly helped with the home economy but didn’t bring in dollars. My dad worked in a factory some/most of the time, but the factory struggled and frequently had mass layoffs (with the continual promise of rehiring when orders picked up), so he often had to rely on his commercial fishing side gig to bring in income (and food).

Like many American families, this translated into variable spending. In years when there wasn’t a lot of income, things were lean. There wasn’t any extra spending at all. The holidays would be pretty tight and there wasn’t any money for things like extracurricular activities, though there was always food on the table and a roof over our head and clothes on our backs. In other years, there would be more money and at least some of that was spent on unnecessary stuff. There would be a ton of birthday and Christmas presents, for example, and a couple of times we even went on short trips around the Midwest (summer vacations typically didn’t involve any travel at all when I was young).

Along the way, my parents did two really wise financial things.

One, they never allowed much debt to accumulate. There was a mortgage on our home that was paid off at some point in my childhood, and there were occasionally car loans from the local bank that were paid off quickly, but there was never any credit card debt or other debts. It just didn’t exist.

Two, they kept a very nice emergency fund at a credit union associated with where my father worked. My parents had money automatically taken out of his paycheck and put into his credit union account, and that money would come in handy in emergencies, like a layoff or a car breakdown or something like that.

What does this mean? It means that, for almost every single year when I was young, my parents spent less money than they brought in. Even though our family’s income was relatively low, my parents were wise enough to never allow our spending to even match that income. They kept our spending even lower.

The result was that, over the years, and particularly after my brothers moved out and I left for college, my parents became at least somewhat financially prosperous. When a 401(k) became available at my father’s workplace, he started contributing to it. They actually inched up the money they were contributing to the credit union. They were able to travel a little and actually went on some family vacations with us and our children, something that would have never worked when we were younger.

Even now, between my father’s pension and Social Security, they still spend less than they bring in and they still put aside money in the credit union for emergencies and future expenses.

The life they have, and have always had, is quite stable. They’re not at significant risk of having that life fall apart because they couldn’t pay the bills.

In other words, their “burn rate” – the money they have to spend to maintain their normal lifestyle – has almost always been significantly below their income level. On occasion, they’ve splurged above it, but that’s only when there was significant extra money they’ve accumulated because their income was quite a bit higher than their burn rate.

(Of course, part of the problem was that when I was a kid, I didn’t see this. What I saw is that whenever my parents had a bump in income from something, like my father returning to work and getting a bonus or a really good run with his fishing, they would splurge a little, and thus I associated a rise in income with an increase in spending. That was a very poor lesson for me to learn, and I wish I had understood the big picture. We’ll get back to this a bit later.)

Right now, Sarah and I are in the same boat. Our “burn rate” is significantly lower than our household income. We intentionally choose to spend a whole lot less than we bring in, and that excess money is almost entirely going into retirement savings so that, ideally, we can stop working as early as possible.

In other words, we want to reach a point where our investment income can cover our “burn rate” for the rest of our lives, and Social Security is just the icing on the cake.

A High Burn Rate

Here’s the catch, though: modern society practically begs people to have a “burn rate” that’s pretty close to their actual income, or even above it. Modern culture lauds having an affluent standard of living, with a huge house and expensive cars and expensive food and drink and tons of digital goodies and lots of services.

That situation is otherwise known as living paycheck to paycheck, and it’s a state that somewhere around 80% of Americans find themselves in, depending on what statistics you’re looking at.

If that’s your situation – your “burn rate” matches your income – there are a bunch of bad consequences. I’ll summarize by grouping them into three big issues.

One, you’re not building any wealth. You’re not preparing for retirement, which means that you’re hoping that Social Security can sustain you or that you can work until the day you drop dead. You’re not preparing for any other life goals that you might have that have any sort of money requirement. All you’re doing is buying stuff in the moment.

Two, you’re not prepared to handle any sort of unexpected event in life. If something bad happens, you have no way to handle them. You’re either hoping that credit cards can pull you through it or you’re going to be selling stuff off very rapidly. It’s going to be incredibly stressful.

Three, if your income falls, you’ll simultaneously have to deal with radical lifestyle changes at the same time. What if you lose your job and can’t get a job that pays as well? Not only are you going through the life crisis of finding a new job, you’re also dealing with a complete collapse of your lifestyle, an adjustment that’s uncomfortable at best.

But what do you gain from that?

Your standard of living in terms of material goods and luxury experiences is as high as it can get. That’s really what you’re gaining. Money doesn’t buy love or friendship. It does buy stuff and experiences.

That’s a tradeoff that 80% of Americans make. It’s a tradeoff I made for many years. It’s a tradeoff that left me with a ton of background stress and a pretty miserable life in many ways, although I had a lot of nice trappings. It’s a tradeoff I never, ever, ever want to return to.

I would far rather have a lower burn rate.

A Low Burn Rate

Having a low burn rate means that you’re simply keeping your spending low enough that it adds up to significantly less than you earn. Your annual spending is way below that of your annual level of income, not because you’re earning a ton, but because you’re intentionally choosing to keep your spending low.

The benefits and drawbacks of this approach are almost the complete opposite of that of a high burn rate.

You’re building wealth. If you choose a very low burn rate, you are going to build wealth almost regardless of your level of income. The bigger the gap between your burn rate and income, the faster your wealth grows. The lower your burn rate, the easier it is to reach a point where your investment income can fund your burn rate, at which point you never have to work for money again unless you choose to do so.

You can handle almost any kind of emergency. Because you’re building wealth, you have money in the bank for whatever may come. The longer you hold your burn rate low, the more true this becomes.

If your income falls, your lifestyle won’t change unless the drop is enormous. Most income declines for people with a low burn rate end up just taking the form of slower wealth building. Their lifestyle doesn’t really change much at all unless the income drop is enormous. Switching jobs or being without a job for a few months is often not felt at all in terms of lifestyle.

The downside, of course, is that your standard of living in terms of material goods and luxury experiences isn’t as high as it could be. Things like friendships and love and your internal life and things like that are unchanged regardless of your burn rate. All that really changes with a lower burn rate is that you don’t spend as much money on stuff as you possibly could.

You Choose Your Burn Rate

The thing that most people don’t truly appreciate in all of this is that you choose your own burn rate. You decide exactly how much of your income you’re going to live off of. It’s a decision that’s almost completely under your own control.

Take Daniel Norris, for example. He’s a Major League baseball pitcher earning millions of dollars per year and he lives out of a 1970s-era Volkswagen van. Seriously. There’s even a short film about Daniel and his van.

Daniel’s burn rate is very, very low. He’s very obviously at a point where the money he’s made off of his baseball career can fund his lifestyle many, many times over. He continues to pitch because he loves to pitch. He lives in the van because he loves the freedom and simplicity of it.

Daniel’s story is emblematic of a bigger truth regarding how we spend our money: most of the things we really want in our lives can’t be bought. You can’t go to a store shelf and buy personal freedom. You can’t buy love on Amazon. You can’t buy the feeling of being in a flow state – swept away by something such that you lose track of time and place – on eBay. You can’t purchase the feeling of a hug from someone who cares about you at Target.

However, we often spend money buying things that promise those feelings and experiences, whether they deliver them or not. Much of what we look for in media, for example, is a flow state, where we’re drawn deeply into the story or idea. That’s part the feeling we crave when we sit down for a movie or a TV show or a good book – we want to get lost in it, to be sucked into the plot or the characters or the concepts. It feels good. The best movies and books and television do that for us; the bad stuff leaves us looking at our watches.

So many of the things we spend our money on boils down to those feelings. Big houses are about safety and security and environments where we can have the feelings we crave. Expensive foods. Expensive cars. It boils down to feelings, once we get past the very basic requirements of basic food, water, basic clothing, and basic shelter, and the tools needed to acquire those basic things.

A low burn rate is really about figuring out how to get those feelings without spending money chasing them. I want to get lost in a good book, because that’s a tremendous feeling, but I can get there with a book checked out from the library just as efficiently as one that I spent my money on. I want to enjoy a delicious meal, but I can make one from home out of pretty inexpensive ingredients and not go to a restaurant where I shell out the cash. I want to relax in a beautiful green space that makes me feel peaceful, but I can do that for free at the park instead of having a huge home with a sunroom or a conservatory or a greenhouse.

Another interesting aspect is that as your burn rate increases, you’re chasing increasingly minor differences. There’s a huge jump in quality of life when moving from a tent to an efficiency apartment, for example, but the change in quality of life when going from a 2,000 square foot home to a 2,600 square foot home isn’t very big. The thing is, the increase in cost is usually bigger with the home jump than it is to jump from a tent.

Switching from walking to having a beater car to get to work is a huge change, but switching from driving a Toyota to a Lexus to work isn’t a big shift. However, the walking-to-beater cost is much, much less than the Toyota-to-Lexus cost.

In the end, a low burn rate is really about finding cost efficient ways to have the basics and the additional feelings in your life that you want without throwing more and more money chasing smaller and smaller “upgrades” in how you feel. There’s a balance, and the point where spending more money turns into diminishing returns is surprisingly low.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Final Thoughts

If you want to have a rich, low stress life with incomparable freedom, the best way to do that is to have a life with a low burn rate, where the maintenance of your lifestyle costs as little as possible. It might not be a life with luxury trappings, but those luxury trappings are often all about chasing feelings that you can already find in a low burn rate lifestyle if you look close enough.

The challenge is finding those feelings in a low burn rate lifestyle and knowing when exactly you’re just throwing more and more money away for smaller and smaller returns compared to what you can already have for free.

Keep your burn rate low. There’s always greener grass on the other side, but as long as you already have good things, chasing that greener grass won’t get you anything you don’t already have.

Good luck.

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