Using First-Order Thinking to Visualize Spending Decisions

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One of my favorite strategies for getting down to the core of something is to use a trick I call the “five why’s.”

Basically, I use this technique whenever I identify a problem of some kind in my life, or when I’m trying to dig into the core of an idea. I’ll take that problem or that idea I’m trying to understand and I’ll ask “why?” Then, I’ll take that answer and ask “why?” again. I’ll keep asking why until something interesting or valuable emerges; it usually takes five “why’s.”

Let me share my favorite example from the old article:

We often wind up with a large backup of laundry, then find ourselves doing several loads on a single weekend day.

Why? Our laundry routine doesn’t work.

Why? One big problem is that our laundry room is literally as far as possible in our home from our bedrooms, plus the laundry room is back in the corner near the guest bedroom. Out of sight, out of mind. As a result, we often don’t even think about the laundry until the evening, when we’re just about ready for bed. Then, in the morning rush, we walk right by it.

Why? It’s more convenient to just ignore it in the morning and we’re too tired to deal with it in the evening.

A solution presents itself. Fill up a laundry basket in our bedroom in the evening and place it right in front of the door so that we’ll trip over it in the morning if we don’t deal with it. Then, when we go downstairs in the morning, we carry the basket down and we’re pretty much ready to drop in a load of laundry on our way out the door. I’ve started doing this and it actually really works.

The five why’s — in this case, it was just three, but you get the idea — actually led me toward figuring out a more efficient pattern for doing laundry, one that’s more in line with the energy I have throughout the day. I will often come downstairs in the morning with a laundry basket of dirty clothes in hand which goes straight into the washer.

What I want to talk about today is another similar tool that I use in situations that are almost the opposite of this situation, where I have a core idea and I’m trying to figure out the impact of that idea. Imagine that I’ve actually got the answer to the five why’s, but I want to move in reverse back up to the problems and benefits it might cause in my daily life.

I simply ask “and then what?” over and over again, usually about five times.

Let’s look at a clear example of “and then what?”

Let’s say I’m considering a major life change of some kind, like moving to a new house.

So, I start off with the idea of a new house. What are some really obvious things that will result if I buy a new house like what I want?

We’ll have a bigger kitchen.
We’ll have at least one guest bedroom.
We’ll have space out back to build a small exercise shed.
We’ll have a bigger yard.
We’ll have higher property taxes and insurance.
We’ll be a little closer to where Sarah works.

Some of those are positives and some of them are negatives.

For each of those, though, I’m going to ask “and then what?” Let’s start with having a bigger kitchen. Okay, I have a bigger kitchen, then what?

I’ll likely cook more meals at home.
We’ll probably refresh a lot of the items that are in the kitchen.
It’ll take more time to keep it clean.

For each of those, I’ll ask something like:

“Okay, we’ll likely cook more meals at home, then what?”

The kitchen will be messy more often.
We’ll probably spend less on food.
We’ll probably make more interesting meals.

Again, I can ask the “and then what?” question about some of these.

What I’m actually digging for are specific things that actually matter to me. What spending changes will this new house cause? What time use changes will this new house cause? How will our daily routines and activities be changed? What will be the actual quality of life improvements? What are the actual quality of life drawbacks?

The more answers I have to those questions, the more clear the positives and negatives of having a new house become. I can start assessing a lot of the conclusions and then make a much better decision regarding a big choice like that. For me, it usually becomes clear after a while whether the answers add up to a positive or a negative.

So, for us, although we used to dream of having a big house in the country, the “and then what?” exercise actually led us to realize that it would have more drawbacks than benefits, so, for now, we’re not really considering that move anymore.

I do this exact same exercise when evaluating a new major goal that I’m thinking about. I do this to try to weed out some of the potential pitfalls of a goal in advance so I can decide if I really want to jump on board with that goal or if there are problems with the goal that I can fix in the planning stages to increase my chances of success.

For example, my biggest personal goal that I’m looking at right now is achieving a black belt in taekwondo. Figuring out how I can get there, to be fit and flexible enough to be able to excel at tests and to know enough techniques, means that I developed a daily training plan to get there, and repeatedly asking “and then what?” helped me to revise that daily training plan to the point where it made a lot more sense in terms of something I can stick with.

The “and then what?” question is just a model for first order and second order thinking — and beyond.

The real secret behind the “and then what?” question is that it nudges you to go beyond first order thinking when making a decision or a plan.

Okay, so what’s first order thinking? I like the words of Noah Pepper when describing this:

First order thinking is the process of considering the intended and perhaps obvious implications of a business decision or policy change.

Since first order thinking expands to all decisions and changes a person might make, I’d reword it like this for our purposes:

First order thinking is the process of considering the intended and perhaps obvious implications of a personal decision or plan.

Great, so what’s second order thinking? Again, in Noah Pepper’s words:

Second order thinking is the process of tracing down and unraveling the implications of those first order impacts.

And, thus, third order thinking is the process of tracing down and unraveling the implications of those second order impacts, and fourth order does the same to third order, and so on.

So, in the above example with our consideration of building a new house, the initial observations like having a bigger kitchen and having a guest bedroom were examples of first order thinking, and then when we delved into the bigger kitchen, we were engaging in second order thinking, and when we delved into the ramifications of more meals at home, we were engaging in third order thinking. You can keep going from there as deep as you want.

For me, I find that I stop when it’s clear that the firm conclusions I’m reaching are pointing me toward a particular plan or a particular decision. If I’m still unsure, I keep digging deeper with more “and then what?” questions.

The decisions are like a giant tree.

One thing a person can’t help but notice here is that you’re creating a giant tree of thought. If you list out the first order thoughts about a particular decision or plan, you’re looking at the big thick branches coming off the trunk of a tree. However, the second order thoughts are like thinner branches coming off of those thick branches, and the third order thoughts are like even thinner branches, and the fourth order thoughts are like twigs. It’s a giant tree!

If you have ten first order thoughts, and each first order thought gives you five second order thoughts to think about, and each second order thought gives you three third order thoughts to think about, and each third order thought gives you three fourth order thoughts… right there, you have 450 things to consider. That’s… overwhelming.

So what value does this really have? I’d point toward three key things.

First, almost always, this process makes my decision or plan better. It will nudge me toward the increasingly obvious best decision when making a choice or it will help me continually refine a plan such that it’s more likely to succeed.

Second, I usually only delve that deep on major decisions or plans. I delve down to fourth and fifth level stuff only with really big decisions. Should we move? Should I switch careers? What about this big multi-year goal I’m considering adopting? I usually do this on paper and write all of this down, page after page after page, just to make sure I’m committing to something worth committing to and something that’s optimized for the best chance of success.

Third, I will sometimes delve this deep on smaller decisions and plans, but usually when it’s something that will come up again with some regularity. For example, I’ll go this deep with things like weekly routines. There are a lot of regular tasks in my life for which I have checklists, and I’ll definitely go this deep when writing such a checklist, because I want that checklist to be correct. I’ll sometimes go fairly deep on small decisions that seem off to me.

Outside of that, I don’t go that deep with decisions, except for giving some depth to decisions that cost money and particularly repeatable ones. Most decisions for me are instantaneous, but they often rest on having gone a little deeper at some point in the past. For example, I’ll give some real thought, going two or three levels deep, about something like which kind of milk to buy at the store, but then I can just draw on that thinking to make a reliably good snap decision next time, and it’s worth it because it’s a decision I’ll be making over and over again.

In other words, the tree of the decision is only as big as you want it to be. When a clearly good choice becomes apparent, it’s time to go with it rather than endlessly going down tinier and tinier branches. Only do that with the biggest decisions in your life, and even in those cases, I stop with just five levels.

Applying “and then what?” to real financial decisions is easier than it seems.

Let’s look at “and then what?” questioning as applied to a real financial decision.

You have a 401(k) plan at work. When you first started, you contributed a tiny amount — say, 2%. After a year or two, you started reading more about personal finance and now you’re thinking you should bump that up to 5%, as your employer matches your first 5% of contributions dollar for dollar.

So, you might initially think of the following benefits and drawbacks:

  • You’ll have a lot more money for retirement
  • You’ll have a little smaller paycheck

Let’s apply the “and then what?” question.

You’ll have a lot more money for retirement, and then what?

  • Retirement will be a lot more comfortable when you get there
  • You’ll worry less about retirement as you approach it
  • You could potentially use that money for other things in a real emergency.

You’ll have a little smaller paycheck, and then what?

  • You might have to cut down on some of your treats
  • You might feel a little less financial flexibility

Those are the second order issues. Let’s go through the third order ones, too.

Retirement might be a lot more comfortable when you get there, and then what?

  • You can actually do some things in retirement that you’ve always dreamed of doing
  • You will have a much easier time visiting and spending time with any children and grandchildren you may have
  • You won’t have to live a life of poverty in retirement

You’ll worry less about retirement as you approach it, and then what?

  • You won’t have to make huge last minute contributions to retirement to try to catch up
  • Your life during your 50s and 60s will be less stressful
  • You can use the resources you might have had to throw into last minute contributions for other things that are important to you

You could potentially use that saved money in your 401(k) in an emergency, and then what?

  • You’d survive that emergency a lot more efficiently.
  • However, you’d then be back to having less in retirement than desired, so you’d be making catch-up payments
  • Having that option available, however, reduces worries about the future even a little more

You might have to cut down on some of your treats in the short term, and then what?

  • You’ll probably end up missing some of the things you cut and not some of the others
  • You’ll likely end up adjusting a little
  • This might make you feel unhappy for a while

You might have a little less financial flexibility, and then what?

  • You may have to learn how to be more frugal in some areas of life
  • Some of those things might be almost invisible, while others will be frustrating
  • You might feel unhappy for a while as you figure it out

So, let’s tie all of this together.

Some of the downsides of contributing more to retirement would include cutting out a few of your treats, some of which you might miss a little (but others you won’t). You also may have to try being more frugal in some areas of life, like maybe cutting your cable or eating at home a little more. These changes might make you feel unhappy for a little while as you adjust to minor lifestyle deflation.

On the other hand, contributing more now means that you’ll avoid a lot of stress later in your career because you won’t have to make big last-minute contributions to retirement. You’ll give yourself financial flexibility then, and even more flexibility when you are retired. You’ll be able to have the flexibility to take on new adventures without financial worry and not have to face restricted options due to poverty.

Digging into third order (and deeper) elements helps a person see what the real consequences are for their choices, and when you look at it from this lens, bumping up your retirement a little so that you’re still comfortable in your current life while bringing all of those benefits into your future seems like an obvious choice.

If you don’t look deeper, it’s easier to get caught up on that slightly smaller paycheck, but while it looks like a big issue with first order thinking, it looks a lot smaller when you dig in a few layers. The reverse is true with retirement savings — you begin to see that having money in the bank will benefit you much sooner because you’ll avoid stress later in your career thanks to those savings now.

Of course, if you’re already saving a ton, you might do this same experiment and conclude that more savings won’t really bring many benefits, but it will add significantly to today’s hardships.

“And then what?” is helpful throughout your life, at any level

The more you apply “and then what?” to the important decisions in your life, the better your decisions will be and the stronger your plans will be. The key, however, is to avoid going too deep with it, because “and then what?” can lead you to analysis paralysis where you keep evaluating.

Stop regularly and look at what you’ve figured out. You may just realize that what you’ve learned is strongly pointing you toward a decision, and when that’s clear after digging through a few layers of this, you’re virtually always looking at the right answer, so just go with it.

Ask “and then what?” Ask it again. Listen to the answers. They’ll usually tell you what you should be doing.

Good luck!

The post Using First-Order Thinking to Visualize Spending Decisions appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Twenty Winter Hacks That Let You Keep Your House a Little Cooler

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Here in north-central Iowa where I live, we recently enjoyed a severe and unseasonal November cold snap which drove the temperatures down below zero (Fahrenheit) for a couple of days. While such temperatures aren’t out of the ordinary for January and February, they were a bit of a shock to the system for November.

Thus, a big part of the last week was rediscovering how exactly to keep our home temperature as low as possible while still being comfortable at home. I keep it lower during the day when I’m alone working and low at night when we’re all sleeping, but a little higher when all of us are at home.

The reason for keeping it on the cool side is obvious – lower energy bills. Even dropping our thermostat by a degree on a cold day means that the furnace and fan kick on less frequently, and if lowering it by a degree means that it goes through one fewer heating cycle every two hours, that adds up to a surprising amount of energy savings over the course of a winter month.

Of course, you also want to be comfortable in your own home. I don’t want to sit around freezing all the time, and neither do you. The trick is to find the exact point where your house is cool but not uncomfortably so, and that exact point is different for each person. I’ve learned, for example, that my parents like to have their house much hotter in the winter than we do, and our house is certainly cooler today than the house was when I was a kid living with my parents.

My usual tactic for figuring out that temperature is to keep nudging the thermostat a little lower and a little lower until it reaches a point where I don’t quite feel comfortable, then I raise it by a degree or two. What I’ve learned over the years is that I can make that temperature dive go quite a bit lower if I take some proactive steps around the house to encourage those lower temperatures.

Here are twenty things I do at home all throughout the winter to enable things to be a few degrees cooler while still being comfortable, which translates into huge energy bill savings.

I dress warmly around the house, often in layers. As I write this, I’m wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt underneath a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, with some thick comfy socks on. I feel really comfortable and also quite warm, even though the house temperature is pretty cool.

If I start to feel overly warm, I can always just strip off the sweatshirt or knock the temperature down another degree, but while I’m working, I feel pretty good. If I were to just take off the sweatshirt or the jeans, I’d probably be fine for a while and then gradually start feeling cold, which would make me want to nudge up the temperature.

Just wear comfortable clothes in layers around the house. You can adjust situationally as needed, and it allows you to keep things just a bit cooler.

We keep the ceiling fans running on “low” in “winter mode.” By “winter mode,” I mean that the blades are running in a clockwise direction so that you don’t actually feel it blowing down on you if you’re standing right underneath it. Rather, the air is pushing upwards against the ceiling, which causes the warm air that collects at the top of the room is pushed down along the walls and mixes with the cooler air on the floor to warm the room.

You don’t need to run it on “high”; in fact, it’s less efficient that way. Just run it on “low” with the air pushing upwards. You can set the direction of the blades with a little switch on most ceiling fans.

I drink a lot of warm beverages throughout the day, particularly tea. There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is that, well, I’m ingesting warm stuff, which will make me feel warmer. A cup of hot tea on a cold day is a great way to warm yourself up.

There’s a second reason, too: it helps me stay hydrated, and when you’re hydrated, you retain water much better than when you’re dehydrated. Water retains heat fairly well, so when you drink that hot water, you’re going to stay warm for longer.

We keep blankets near every chair or couch where people might sit, so they can drape them over their legs if they want. Every room in our house has a pile of blankets available in the winter for people to cover up. We have a variety of thicknesses, a variety of sizes, a variety of cloth types – there’s something for everyone! (I’m partial to the biggest ones, because I’m tall and I like to keep my toes covered up.)

If someone happens to feel cold while others don’t, they can just grab a blanket and drape it over their laps or completely cover up with it. We’ll often do this in the evenings if we’re watching a movie as a family or playing a board game or working on a puzzle or something, because we tend to feel most cold when we’re sedentary.

We cuddle and share blankets. I really love getting huge blankets that can cover multiple people. Not only do they make it easy to wrap yourself up in a blanket on the couch like a mummy, it also makes it very easy for two people to cuddle together under a blanket, which is a fantastic way to feel warm on a cold winter night.

There are few things that will make you feel warm under a blanket faster than the warmth of another person, so if you have someone you don’t mind cuddling with, keep a big blanket around and cuddle with that person often. It’s one of the most enjoyable money savers around.

We layer blankets on the beds. In the winter, every bed in our home has several blankets on it. This enables people to easily add and remove blankets as their needs change throughout the night. Several blankets can also create a mild “weighted blanket” feel, which some people like.

These layered blankets can keep you very warm at night, which is perfect if you drop the temperature in your home a few degrees on winter nights so that the furnace isn’t running constantly.

I make a lot of hot meals at home (and bake a lot, too). During the winter, I make a lot of hot meals in our kitchen. I love making casseroles and soups and stews. I love baking things – bread and cookies and crusts and pies. It’s wonderful to do this, but particularly during the winter.

Why? When I’m cooking something in the kitchen, the excess heat is flooding out into the kitchen, keeping the temperature higher in the house without the furnace kicking on. Now, our oven isn’t nearly as efficient as the furnace for heating the house, but it’s a far better proposition than cooking in the summer, when a hot kitchen works against the air conditioning. Rather, the excess heat helps you a little bit, so it’s even more cost effective to cook at home during the winter than during the summer.

There’s also the additional effect of eating warm foods. If you eat something warm, you’re going to feel warmer and for good reason – your body temperature is going to go up a little bit. That helps you feel nice and toasty even when the house is cool.

We cook lots of things in the slow cooker. I particularly like using the slow cooker during the winter, for a few reasons. As noted above, it heats up the house, and eating warm foods makes you feel warm.

However, a slow cooker adds a wonderful additional effect that isn’t a guarantee with other methods of cooking: it’s going to add moisture to the house.

Most recipes that you make in a slow cooker have a significant water content. In fact, we often cook soups and stews in the slow cooker, which means a lot of liquid. Cooking things with a lot of liquid in them adds humidity to the air, and during the winter when the furnace or when radiators are running, it’s easy for the air to get very dry. A bit of humidity helps the air hold heat a little better and gradually adding a little moisture to the air throughout the day raises that humidity.

Let’s talk a little bit more about humidity…

I leave water sitting out for a few hours, particularly if it’s hot water. If I heat up water for any reason, I won’t just dump it down the drain. Rather, I leave it sitting out for a few hours, letting the warmth from that water migrate out into our house and letting the water evaporate a little, adding moisture to the house, too.

If I make pasta, I’ll save the water when I drain it. If I make tea and have some extra water, I let it sit out in a bowl. If I cook something via sous vide, I let the basin of hot water sit out for several hours, spreading the heat and evaporating. If I draw a hot bath, I’ll let the water sit in the tub for a few hours until it’s down to room temperature. If I have a sink full of hot water for dishes, I let it sit until it’s at room temperature. Let that heat go into our house rather than down the drain!

Sometimes, I’ll even just put normal containers of water near the hot air vents. One great additional trick if you have some extra water is to sit it in a bowl or something near a hot air vent in your home. This won’t directly heat your home, but what it will do is encourage evaporation as the air coming out of your vent will be quite dry, and having sitting water there will cause it to evaporate at a relatively high rate, adding moisture to the air. Again, water holds heat well, so adding a bit of moisture to the dry air in your home is a great way to make the air in your home hold heat better.

I’ll usually do this with a glass bowl. I’ll just sit it near a vent for a while, let some of it evaporate, and eventually dump the rest. Sometimes our dogs will drink from the bowl rather than their dog dish, so this will convince me to dump it a little sooner.

I shower with the bathroom door open and a fan outside the door running. This is another heat and humidity trick. During other seasons, I just run the vent fan in our bathroom when I’m taking a shower as I want that heat and humidity out of the house. In the winter, though, I want to keep that heat and humidity in the house, but I don’t want it concentrated in the bathroom where it can eventually damage the paint.

My solution? I usually shower with the bathroom door open and run a fan in our bedroom (the bathroom where I shower is attached to our bedroom) while not running the vent fan. That way, the hot, moist air spreads out into other areas of the house rather than just blowing out of the vent.

Also, the last few minutes of my shower are as cold as I can stand it. This is a trick I learned that actually helps me keep warm, even though it seems really counterintuitive.

During a shower, I’ll wash myself with nice warm water, but when I’m rinsing all the soap and shampoo off, I turn the temperature down as cold as I can stand it, for perhaps the last three minutes of the shower.

Why? Believe it or not, cold water actually causes your core temperature to rise while your outer surface cools off. After the shower and a bit of warming up as you get dressed, this elevated core temperature will actually leave you feeling quite a bit warmer about 15-30 minutes after the shower than taking a warm shower will leave you. Don’t believe me? Give it a try!

(The reverse is true – in the summer, you should take a warm shower if you want to feel cool after your shower. Start off with cold water to cool off, but then switch to warm water during the rest of the shower.)

I heat up “rice bags” and throw them under the sheets and blankets a few minutes before I go to bed. These are just small cloth bags of dry rice sewn shut, nothing special. I’ll put these in the microwave for about 3 minutes before I go upstairs to bed, toss them under the blankets, and then go about my pre-bedtime routine, which takes about ten minutes. When I climb into bed, it’s already really warm under the blanket, as the heat has spread but hasn’t escaped.

In the morning, when I make the bed, I grab the little rice bags and put them downstairs near the microwave, so they can be easily microwaved again.

This makes it much nicer to get into a cozy warm bed at night, and it doesn’t risk spillage as a hot water bottle might do.

I heat up my clothing with those same little “rice bags.” I also use those exact same rice bags in the pockets of my clothes, particularly when I’m about to go outside, but occasionally on a really chilly day around the house. I’ll just microwave one for a couple of minutes (not as long as the ones for bedtime, as I actually want to be able to touch these) and slip them in a coat pocket or in the pocket of a hooded sweatshirt.

This not only heats up the item I’m wearing, but also gives me something warm to put my hands on when I’m out and about. It doesn’t last forever, but it lasts for a surprisingly long time.

We keep windows uncovered when sun is shining through them, but cover them the rest of the time. When direct sunlight is shining on the windows in our home, we’ll open up the curtains or blinds and let that sunlight stream in through the windows, naturally heating the interior of our home. The heat of the sunshine exceeds the loss of insulation from keeping the window coverings closed. I particularly like sitting for a while in the sunshine on days when it shines in the window, as it makes me feel warm.

When direct sunlight isn’t shining on the windows, we do the opposite and keep them closed because the insulation effect of the window coverings exceeds the nonexistent warmth of sunlight.

I keep some warm house slippers around and keep them on my feet if it’s chilly. I’m normally barefoot around my house in the spring, summer, and fall, but in the winter, having bare feet can make me feel really cold. My first line of defense against this is a nice pair of slippers – I currently wear these and love them.

These do a great job of keeping my feet nice and toasty during the day while I’m working. But I also do something else…

I also wear socks on really cold days, sometimes even in layers. If I still feel cold on a really cold day with my slippers, I’ll go put on at least one pair of socks. Again, I don’t normally wear them around the house except for when it’s cold, but when it’s really chilly, they help a ton.

I tend to like wearing wool socks. On cold days, I’ll wear wool socks on top of athletic socks, as two layers of wool socks or athletic socks on top of wool socks feel really tight on my feet.

I go on a lot of walks, even when it’s really cold. A nice long brisk walk makes me feel a lot warmer, and that warmth seems to continue for a surprising amount of time after I get home. Walking elevates my core temperature and the temperature stays elevated for a while, leaving me feeling warm all over.

Thus, once or twice a day, even on really cold days, I’ll bundle up and go on a fast walk. My goal is to feel slightly sweaty on my innermost layer, such that I feel like changing clothes or even taking a shower when I get back to the house. If I do this along with the shower technique described above, I’ll feel warmer all day long.

I keep a towel to stuff along the bottom of all exterior doors, even those with weatherstripping. Like it or not, cold air does seep in a little around the edges of doors, especially when the wind blows against them. Although our doors are pretty well lined, it’s still beneficial to add a bit of extra protection on the coldest and windiest days.

Stuffing a towel along the bottom of an exterior door reduces a lot of that cold airflow. This is particularly important because the cold drafts it blocks flow in along the floor, where your feet are, and this can make you feel doubly cold.

We burn candles. We’re not big candle people, but we sometimes receive them as gifts. Candles are universally saved for the winter, where we’ll often burn them in the evenings. Candles contribute a surprising amount of warmth to a room, often enough to make a room feel noticeably more comfortable.

Dig out your candles and light them in the room where you are, ideally fairly close to a thermostat so that the thermostat continues to register the current temperature of the room you’re in and the furnace doesn’t needlessly kick on.

You don’t need to keep your furnace on full blast all winter long. Drop the temperature a few degrees and use these strategies instead to save yourself quite a lot of money.

Good luck!

The post Twenty Winter Hacks That Let You Keep Your House a Little Cooler appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

The subtle clues that you’re living a Rich Life

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The first time I gave a talk at Google, they put me in the hallway — literally, there were people walking by on their way to lunch. 

The second time was more official. I had a stage, even though it’s hard to see me on the video they shot.

But for the third time — my latest Talk at Google — they pulled out all the stops. A real A/V crew, serious prep, and a completely sold-out room with standing room only. My coordinator told me he’s never seen the room so full. That’s a huge sign of the IWT community we’ve built here.

Sometimes you get a HUGE clue that you’re succeeding at the things you love. With the Google talk, it was obvious: 12 years ago — hallway. Today — big room, sold-out crowd.

But sometimes the clues are more subtle.

Years ago, my trainer used to ask me a question when I’d go in to work out: 

He’d ask: “Did you get in?”

What he meant was, “Did you work out on your own since the last time we saw each other?”

Sometimes my answer was yes (more often, it was some excuse why I didn’t get in). But after a while — when I started taking fitness more seriously — my answers started being Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Finally, he stopped asking me.

BAM. That’s a clue. A few months later, I finally noticed he didn’t have to ask me about training on my own anymore. It had become a habit, something I did on my own, for myself.

How about this subtle clue?

It’s the tagline from this TV show — do you know it?

“Sometimes you want to go…where everybody knows your name 

We ALL want to go where everybody knows our name. Walking into our homes, to be greeted by a smiling partner, and maybe a dog wagging its tail (for me — no dogs).

In just a single moment, it shows so much: That you’re a “regular”…that your friends are welcoming you…and that you’re home.

What are the other subtle clues that you’re living a Rich Life?

Share them in the comments below. I’ll share some of the best ones on my Instagram feed.

And Google just posted my entire talk, which you can watch here. Check out some new stories you haven’t heard here…plus some amazing responses from the crowd.

Ramit speaks at Google

The subtle clues that you’re living a Rich Life is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.


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Let’s say you’re lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family. They take care of all of your needs and fulfill an awful lot of your wants. You were always the person with the nice clothes, the latest devices, the expensive games, the nice car, all paid for by mom and dad. You go to college, paid for by mom and dad. Then, suddenly, you’re out on your own. You’re making a decent living, but it’s hard. All of the nice stuff in your life before now is out of reach and everything is painfully expensive.

Let’s say you got a great job coming out of college and you nailed it for several years. You made a very good salary and you became accustomed to spending accordingly. Then, suddenly, things went in a new direction. Maybe you fell out of that career for some reason. Maybe you began to question whether you wanted to keep doing this or not. Maybe you had a major personal life change. Now, suddenly, your income is a lot lower. You’re making a decent living, but it’s hard. All of the nice stuff in your life before now is out of reach and everything is painfully expensive.

Let’s say you simply realized that your current financial life is unsustainable. You spent your 20s and maybe your 30s spending lavishly and enjoying a lot of travel and luxury goods and suddenly you’re realizing you don’t really have anything saved and actually have a lot of debt. You have to cut back and make some changes. You’re making a decent living, but it’s hard. All of the nice stuff in your life before now is out of reach and everything is painfully expensive.

These stories all in the same place: people are recalibrating. They’re learning how to survive on less spending money than they used to.

Recalibration can happen to anyone. It can happen to the kids of millionaires who are suddenly cut off from the bank of mom and dad. It can happen to people with a great job who suddenly find themselves jobless. It can occur when someone decides to leave a well-paying job to become a stay at home parent. It can happen much like it happened to me, with a realization that one’s financial life is unsustainable. Sometimes, recalibration happens by choice; at other times, it’s forced upon you.

No matter what, it’s not fun.

It can be easy for people to say “That’s not really a problem,” but no matter what your original spending level, a significant cut in your spending levels creates life difficulties. It is not easy for anyone to recalibrate. We’re creatures of habit. That’s why things like losing weight are so difficult for so many of us. Even among the most spontaneous of us, we’re still creatures of habit and many of those routines are very hard to change.

Here is my best advice for anyone currently recalibrating, or who might see recalibration coming in their near future.

Take a “Glass Half Full” Approach

It is very easy when you’re recalibrating to find yourself focusing on the downgrades and obsessing over what’s missing in life. After all, what’s changed in your life is the recalibration – you’re spending less than you used to and you can’t help but focus on it, right?

Rather than focusing on how the glass is half empty, focus instead on how the glass is half full.

Whenever you catch yourself feeling miserable about recalibrating, consciously recognize what you’re doing and how it doesn’t help, and then consciously start thinking about all of the things you do have and all of the things you could do.

You might find yourself dwelling on the fact that you can’t eat out like you used to, yet there’s nothing stopping you from making some of your favorite foods at home a lot cheaper than before.

You might be upset that you can’t just go shopping at the drop of a hat, but aren’t your closets and shelves full of stuff that you love that’s just gathering dust? You have infinite things already in your possession that don’t get the attention they deserve.

You might feel like your social life is suffering because you can’t go out all the time any more, but there’s no reason you can’t call someone up and invite them to do something that doesn’t involve shelling out cash. A good friend is one you don’t have to spend money in order to spend time with them.

You have a home to live in. You have tons of possessions. You have people in your life that love you. You have your health and your energy and your life. You have access to more entertainment options and more knowledge than anyone who has ever lived. You have so much.

Focus on that, not on the little inconveniences that come from recalibrating.

Dive Deep into Low Cost Passions

One of the things that really saved me during my own recalibration was that I really loved to read. It was a passion that had been somewhat derailed into more of a desire to just collect books and stuff my shelves with them.

I made a concerted effort to spend less time shopping for books – effectively reducing that to zero for a while – and more time actually reading. If I didn’t want to read any of the abundant books already on my shelf, I just went to the library to find other ones.

What things do you enjoy that doesn’t require a big additional expense?

Perhaps you love to go hiking. Rather than obsessing over the latest hiking gear, just get out there and start making a list of trails you’ve explored.

Perhaps you love clothes. Rather than spending hundreds on new clothes, start trawling secondhand shops for things that are huge bargains that look good on you, or figure out how to modify some of the stuff you already have for new looks.

Perhaps you love good food. Rather than going to tons of restaurants, start learning how to actually make things you love in your home kitchen.

There are essentially infinite free and low cost things to dive into out there. Spend some time thinking about things you actually really love doing in your life, figure out which ones don’t involve big outlays of money (or can be done in a way that doesn’t involve a lot of money), and dive into them.

The purpose is to find ways to fill your life with joy and pleasure without exchanging a ton of money for it. One of the things that forces people to recalibrate is that they found themselves in a routine where they were constantly exchanging money for enjoyment and pleasure, and that’s a key cycle to break. You don’t have to spend money to have joy and pleasure.

Cut Back Hard on Things That Are Relatively Unimportant – Learn to Love the Store Brands

Here’s a strategy to try: the next time you buy any household product, buy the store brand version instead. Do it for everything.

Then, over the next month or two, see if you notice anything actually lacking in terms of what you use them for. Does the store brand laundry detergent get your clothes clean? (Hint: it does.) Does the store brand dishwashing detergent get your dishes clean? (Hint: it does.) Does the store brand ketchup taste basically the same as other ketchups? (Hint: it does.) Do the store brand trash bags convey your trash out to the curb? (Hint: they do.)

What you’ll find is that you’ll notice and be bothered by maybe 5% to 10% of the changes, but the other 90% to 95% of the store brands just work perfectly for your needs.

You can do the same with all kinds of stuff. Cancel all of your cable and streaming services except for the one you actually use the most. If you find you’re really missing one, bring it back (or find a suitable replacement, like Sling). Trim back your cellular plan to match what your actual usage has been over the last year and see if that works for you.

The best strategy for recalibrating a lot of your spending is simply to cut back hard, then restore only the things you actually really miss – and you’ll find that you don’t miss a lot of it. This strategy works because you know it’s okay to restore things that you genuinely miss, and the things you don’t become a source of savings.


This is a great compliment to the “glass half full” strategy. Volunteer work can really remind you of the abundance you have in your life and leave you appreciating what you have much more; furthermore, it’s an activity with minimal personal cost.

Simply sign up to volunteer for some cause that you care about, ideally on a local level so you can really see who you’re impacting. Sign up for the food pantry or the clothing pantry or a soup kitchen or a Habitat for Humanity house. You don’t have to do it forever; just take it on as a 90 day personal challenge.

As you’re there, be aware of the difficulties and challenges that the people you’re helping out are facing in their lives. Those challenges are often tremendous, and the people struggling often have few resources with which to handle those challenges.

The experience of volunteering at the local level left me with an incredibly powerful sense that my life was actually really abundant, even at moments where I felt the bite of recalibration. It was a firm reminder of how much I have.

Find People Who Don’t Need to Spend Money for Fun

Look for people in your life who find enjoyable things to do without spending money and actively start spending more time with them. Hang out with the people that like to have movie nights at home or have lots of dinner parties and potlucks and game nights rather than the people who have to go out to have fun.

If you don’t have people in your life like that, seek them out. Go to lots of community events – they tend to draw people who don’t want to spend, spend, spend to maintain their social network. Check out Meetup and go to things that seem interesting. Do the same with your library’s website and your city’s website and things in your community Facebook groups. Actually go to things and participate in them, especially if they’re free, and make an effort to talk to and get to know people there.

Yeah, you won’t click with everyone. That’s fine. The goal is to meet a few interesting people and then, over time and repeated participation, build those relationships up. You’ll find that socializing and friendships don’t have to come with a price tag.

Consciously Dig Into Your Media Collections

Give yourself a simple challenge along these lines.

“I’m not subscribing to a new streaming service until I’ve watched everything on my watchlist / saved list on this service.”

“I’m not buying a new book until I’ve read everything on my shelf or traded away / sold everything I’m not going to read.”

“I’m not buying a new board game until I’ve played all of the ones in my closet at least once, or traded them away if I have no interest in playing them again.”

You get the idea. Whatever form of media that you collect, stop collecting more of it until you’ve gone through what you have now and curated and enjoyed it. By curating, I simply mean getting rid of things you have no intent of reading or watching or listening to or playing with in the future.

This is my challenge in 2020 with my collection of board games, for example. I’m not spending money on a new game until I’ve played everything on my shelves at least once or, if I’m not willing to play it, trading it off for something else that I will play.

This is a great way of recalibrating the balance in your life between collecting more and more stuff that you won’t get around to actually enjoying versus actually digging into your collection to figure out what it is you actually enjoy and refining your collection to match it.

Center on a Inexpensive Self-Improvement Goal

One surprisingly effective tool for recalibrating your spending is to dedicate yourself to a particular self-improvement goal that doesn’t require a ton of additional spending.

For example, you might focus on adopting a healthier diet centered around making food at home. You might focus on getting stronger by building up your core strength through calisthenics. You might focus on learning a new programming language using online resources. You might focus on learning a new spoken language using Duolingo or other free resources.

The point is to give yourself a clear self-improvement goal that’s centered around daily activity. “For the next 180 days, I’m going to spend 30 minutes a day doing bodyweight exercises to strengthen my core and tighten my gut.” “For the next 180 days, I’m going to prepare and eat one vegan meal at home each day.” “For the next 180 days, I’m going to spend 45 minutes learning French.” 180 days is a good target for a goal like this because it will often begin to be a habit, one you stick with even after the 180 days is over.

A low-cost self improvement goal gives you something to focus on that’s distinct from spending and gives you something to take pride in that’s not related to spending, either. You’ll take pride in the effort you’ve put forth, not in something you merely bought, and that’s a big difference. Plus, you’ll be filling up time and mind space with something that’s not related to spending money.

Think of something else you want to improve about yourself and commit to a goal of 180 days where you take daily activity toward that improvement.

Consider a Big Downgrade

Most of the above suggestions are ways to help you deal with lots of little changes in your life, but sometimes it can be bigger just to execute one or two really big changes.

Have you thought about moving to somewhere less expensive? Have you thought about selling off your car and relying on either one fewer car or on mass transit?

Those two moves, right there, can make a gigantic financial difference when you’re recalibrating, but they often don’t pop up on people’s radars. They don’t seriously think about selling the house – instead, they stick with it until it’s about to be foreclosed on. They don’t seriously think about selling the car until the repo man takes it. They don’t consider how selling those things off now can not only alleviate some headaches but also put some money in their pocket.

Consider it. Would it be a good move to move to an apartment, clean out your house, and sell it, paying off the mortgage in full and giving you enough cash to pay off a lot of other debts? Would it be a good move to move to a smaller apartment, maybe one closer to work that allows you to use mass transit? Would it be a good move to sell off your car and just use mass transit for everything (or get a Lyft in a pinch)?

A single big move like that can change everything for the better. Give it some serious thought.

Final Thoughts

Recalibration is hard. It’s hard whether you’re rich or poor or somewhere in between. It means giving up things you once enjoyed. It means facing some hard facts about your life.

In the end, however, recalibration can lead you to a more sustainable life going forward, one that you can be happy with over the long run.

The trick? Next time around, don’t let your lifestyle inflate with your income growth. Instead, keep your lifestyle the way it is and use that money to build long term stability so you don’t have to painfully recalibrate when things don’t go the way you expect.

Good luck!

The post Recalibration appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

How to manage money for financial success in the U.S. military

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Howdy! I’m Spencer, an active-duty Air Force officer investing for financial independence by age 40. Since 2016, my wife and I have saved half of my active-duty paycheck into our financial independence accounts. I started writing in 2012 about achieving FI in the military on my website Military Money Manual.

Because J.D. has no experience with the military, for Veterans Day he asked me to share the lessons I think every servicemember needs to know about getting rich slowly. These are the concepts I wish someone had explained to me as a newly-commissioned officer in 2010. (These lessons are just as applicable to the enlisted side of the house.)

I’ve split this article into two sections.

First, I’ll cover some basic lessons for beginners: taking care of yourself, emergency funds, military friendly banks, tracking your money, and TSP investing.

Next, I’ll cover some advanced topics: investing for financial independence, military deployment, travel, and military credit-card perks.

Let’s start with the basics.

Managing money in the U.S. military

Educate Yourself

One of the harshest life lessons you must learn early in your military career is this: “No one is looking out for you except you.”

You must take responsibility to educate yourself about saving, investing, spending, and achieving financial independence. If you have a really good supervisor or commander in the military, they may explain the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) to you, but that’s probably it.

If you want to achieve financial independence in the military, you need to learn how to do it yourself. There are many resources available to learn about money, including:

I believe it’s important to always be learning, to always be asking questions. If you have questions about your military pay, benefits, or personal finance, type them into Google. Ask your supervisor. Ask your buddies (but don’t always take their advice haha).

Never be afraid to ask questions. Keep yourself educated about money.

Find a Military-Friendly Bank

While you can certainly use a regular bank to manage your money (and Get Rich Slowly maintains a list of online savings accounts), I recommend finding a military-friendly bank. Certain banks and credit unions are dedicated to helping military servicemembers. They understand the difficulties unique to our situation. For instance, USAA has never shut down my ATM card despite withdrawals in over 40 countries.

Some of the largest and most recognized military-friendly banks include USAA, Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed), and Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU).

Look for a military-friendly bank that offers ATM fee reimbursement and that doesn’t charge fees on your accounts no matter what your balances are. Many military-friendly banks will deposit your military pay one business day earlier than your actual payday. This is a nice feature to get access to your money a little earlier each payday.

Build an Emergency Fund

Unlike your civilian counterparts, you’re unlikely to be suddenly fired from the military. Because it’s a government job, you would at least get a few months notice if you were involuntarily separated.

You also don’t have to worry too much about surprise medical bills. Tricare is one of the best healthcare insurance networks in the U.S., and the military medical system is one of the most affordable. You will rarely, if ever, have a co-pay to see a doctor or pick up a prescription.

So, if you don’t have to worry about medical expenses or getting fired, why worry about saving an emergency fund in the military? Because things always go wrong.: cars break, payment of travel vouchers is delayed, the government shuts down, and so on.

Plus, you know how unpredictable military service can be. You may be called away suddenly for a contingency operation in Africa when the car breaks down at home, preventing your husband from getting to work.

Many times when you receive PCS (permanent change of station) or go TDY (temporary duty assignment), your expenses won’t be immediately reimbursed. If you have an incompetent finance office, it may be weeks or months before you finally get paid for that trip.

When you have an emergency fund, you can cover these expenses and not sweat it while finance gets their act together.

When the government shut down in early 2019, members of the Coast Guard went unpaid for an entire pay period. This was an extremely stressful time for many folks. You can insure yourself against political theatrics like this by having an emergency fund.

How big should your emergency fund be? I recommend starting with $1000 and then saving up so that you have enough to cover six months of expenses.

Personally, as an eight-year captain, I have $10,000 in my emergency fund. This isn’t six months of expenses, I admit, but it will cover two plane tickets to fly me and my wife home in case we need to be with family in an emergency. And $10,000 will cover all but the most serious car repairs. It’s the amount that lets me sleep easy at night.

Know Where Your Money Goes

Trust me, I hate budgeting. But if you want to achieve financial success — in the military or otherwise — it’s important to understand where your money is going. This helps you determine if you have optimized your spending to make you happy.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you notice you’re spending $100/week on Buffalo Wild Wings. But you don’t even like wings and beer that much. And you’re trying to lose weight. Well, it looks like you found a great expenditure to eliminate! Most of us can find spending like this to trim from our budgets.

To make tracking easier, I recommend apps like You Need a Budget (YNAB), Personal Capital, or Mint. Or, if you like computers, track your money in a simple spreadsheet.

The key is to make sure that your spending aligns with your goals, that you’re happy with what you’re spending money on.

As for me, I hate budgeting, as I said. After I trimmed the obvious fat from my spending, I adopted what I call an “anti-budget”. I save half of my income into my investment accounts (TSP, IRA, taxable brokerage, and cash accounts). I spend the rest of my money and don’t worry about it. This system is simple. For me, simple is best.

I don’t enjoy analyzing my budget, so I make sure the big three expenses — housing, transportation, and food — are correct, then I live my life. If you get these three right, you can take care of 80% of your savings for only 20% of the effort.

Get Your Full TSP Match

The military’s version of a 401(k) is called the Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP. It’s a boring name that doesn’t really sell the fact that it’s one of the best retirement plans available in the world.

The TSP offers five funds, which together make up most of the investable assets in the world. These funds are:

  • C Fund: contains the S&P 500 companies, the largest 500 companies in America
  • S Fund: contains the 3529 publicly-traded companies in America that aren’t in the S&P 500
  • I Fund: an international stock fund covering 21 nations outside the U.S.
  • F Fund: a fixed-income fund that invests in corporate bonds
  • G Fund: the government bond fund

In addition to these five funds, you can also invest in TSP Lifecycle funds. These are target-date retirement funds that automatically adjust their mix of stocks and bonds over time. In theory, they deliver higher returns with more volatility early in your career, then they become more bond heavy as you age.

The TSP expense ratios are famously low, usually around 0.04% annually. That means for every $1000 you invest in the TSP, you pay $0.40 per year in management fees. That’s it! (And that’s amazing.)

Even on a $1,000,000 portfolio you’d pay only $400 per year. These fees are some of the lowest available in any retirement plan.

You can contribute up to $19,000 into the TSP in 2019. If you deploy to a combat zone, you can contribute up to $56,000.

The TSP is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, so it’s completely separate from your IRAs, or Individual Retirement Accounts. That means you can put $19,000 into your Roth TSP and $6000 in your Roth IRA — $25,000 total for a year!

If you could contribute $25,000 to your IRA and TSP for a full 20-year military service, you’d have $1,100,000 after 20 years, assuming a 7% return. If you entered military service at age 20, retired at 40, and left the $1,100,000 to grow until age 60 at 7%, you’d have $4.2 million. That’s the power of compounding and paying yourself first!

If you joined the military after 2017, you’re automatically in the Blended Retirement System (BRS). In order to maximize your retirement savings, you must contribute at least 5% of your base pay every month.

The government automatically contributes 1% of your base pay to your Traditional TSP account on your behalf. They will contribute up to another 4% if you contribute 5%. This 5% can be worth thousands of dollars annually.

When you retire, that 5% match could have grown to tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

One of my biggest financial regrets it not contributing to my Thrift Savings Plan earlier. Especially now that you can receive a match on your contributions, you need to at least contribute 5% monthly to your TSP as soon as you commission or graduate basic training.

Okay, now that we’ve covered some basic military money topics, let’s move on to some more advanced material.

Use Credit Wisely

There are a lot of folks who believe credit cards are evil. And if you’re not careful, you can end up deep in debt. Many military members do so. But if you understand how to use credit cards wisely, they can be an excellent tool to help you achieve financial success.

Servicemembers have two laws working in their favor: the Military Lending Act (MLA) and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).

These laws have been generously interpreted by most of the major credit-card companies, including American Express and Chase. Both companies are waiving annual fees for servicemembers for cards opened after entering active duty status.

The American Express SCRA policy goes beyond the legal requirements. AMEX waives all annual fees for active-duty servicemembers, Title 10 Reservists, and Title 32 National Guard. This includes their civilian spouses, usually as long as the servicemember is added as an authorized user to the account.

The AMEX SCRA policy applies to both personal and business cards. For instance, my wife and I currently have 13 AMEX cards with $4665 of annual fees waived. The annual recurring benefits of these free cards include:

  • Three free nights at Marriott with Gold Elite status
  • $600 Marriott expenses credit
  • One free night at Hilton with Diamond Status
  • $250 Hilton Resort credit
  • $1150 in airline fee credits reimbursed
  • $800 of Uber or Uber Eats credit
  • Companion pass in Delta first class

These benefits add up quickly: airport lounge access, upgrades to business class, free hotel stays, and free food really goes a long way to making travel free or very cheap.

Since 20 Sep 2017, the Chase MLA policy waives all annual fees on their personal (not business) credit cards for military servicemembers and their spouses. This includes active duty, Title 10 reservists, and Title 32 Guard.

This includes their Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which comes with an annual $300 travel credit good towards airfare, hotels, taxis, trains, Uber, rental cars, parking, and anything else travel related. Chase waives the $450 annual fee on this card for both military servicemembers and their spouses.

These are just some of the credit card benefits extended exclusively to US military personnel. I keep a page updated with the best credit cards for military troops.

But again: Credit cards are only useful and valuable if you don’t carry a balance. If they’re going to lead you into debt, you should avoid them. The bonuses and perks aren’t worth the cost of debt.

Deal with Deployment

Believe it or not, deployment is a golden opportunity to put yourself way ahead – smash debt, save a ton, spend nothing, and figure out what you want to do with your life.

The biggest financial advantages to a military deployment are:

  • Tax-free combat zone income (CZTE)
  • Tax-free contributions to your Roth TSP and Roth IRA
  • Savings Deposit Program (SDP)

Combat zone tax exclusions, or CZTE, are available when you are in a Presidential-declared and IRS-recognized designated combat zone for at least one day of any month. So even if you just fly in, land, and take off again two hours later, you’re eligible for CZTE pay that month.

Your pay during any CZTE month will not be subject to federal income tax. It is subject to FICA tax, so you’ll see Social Security and Medicare tax deducted from your paycheck.

Because your income is tax free any month you’re in a combat zone, you have a unique opportunity to get tax-free money into your Roth IRA and Roth TSP. The money goes in untaxed, grows untaxed, and can come out untaxed, subject to the rules of Roth accounts!

This triple no-tax win is an amazing investment opportunity almost no one else in America can access.

Another program available to you on deployment is the Savings Deposit Program or SDP. The SDP offers a guaranteed 10% return on your investment on up to $10,000 invested.

For example, if you’re on a one-year deployment and invest $10,000 from the beginning of the deployment, you could earn $1000 by the time you head home.
While you’re deployed, your expenses can drop to nearly zero, depending on how much family you’re supporting back home. All the essentials — like food, housing, a gym, and transportation — are covered. You just need to work, work out, eat, and sleep.

Your income will also increase due to the CZTE pay, hardship duty pay, family separation pay, hazardous duty pay, hostile fire pay, and many other special payments you can receive while deployed.

The combination of low expenses and high income means you can really set yourself up for financial success. On my first deployment, I paid off my USAA cadet loan. After my third deployment, I finished paying off my student loans.

If you don’t have any debt, use a deployment to max out your retirement accounts, max out the SDP, and save some money for whatever your future goals are. Set an outrageous goal for yourself, like saving $50,000 in six months. I’ll bet you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can save on a deployment!

Don’t forget to set aside a little money to enjoy life when you get back to the real world. Military deployments aren’t vacations and they’re not stress free. Make sure you take some of your deployment savings to visit your loved ones or take your family skiing.

Travel for Free (or Cheap)

Going TDY (temporary duty) can be a great way to travel and make extra money while you serve. When you’re sent away from your permanent duty station (PDS) on official business, you’ll receive per diem to offset your increased expenses.

Lodging expenses are reimbursed at the rate they were paid. If your authorized lodging amount was $200 and your hotel was $150 per night, you are reimbursed $150. You do not keep the difference.

On the other hand, your meals and incidental expenses (or M&IE) are paid regardless of expenses incurred. If you’re authorized $100 per day and you grab breakfast at the hotel, lunch at Chick-Fil-A for $10, and dinner at Chipotle for $15, you get to keep the remaining $75 per day.

Per diem can add up quickly, especially if you’re on a long training TDY. It can also disappear quickly — usually on drinks out with your coworkers. Be smart about it.

Leave in conjunction with official travel (LICWO) and circuitous travel during PCS are excellent ways to travel to new destinations and get reimbursed for your travel. Essentially, you can take the scenic route to get to your next duty station or temporary assignment.

The government will reimburse you up to what they would have paid for a ticket. Since the government almost always buys full fare, full flexible economy tickets, you can usually get much cheaper flights and get some free travel in during your leave. Here are more details and nuances of LICWO and circuitous travel.

Space Available (Space-A) travel is a tremendous benefit available to servicemembers. Usually if there is an empty seat on a military flight, the passenger terminal will open it up to servicemembers and dependents. Free travel around the world!

There are a lot of caveats to Space-A, and it’s not a very reliable or seamless process all of the time. I recommend that you check out and their Facebook group for the best information on travelling Space-A.

Invest for Financial Independence

Most servicemembers don’t make it to 20 years of service. The figures vary by service and officer vs. enlisted, but only about 20% of servicemembers who serve earn any kind of military pension, whether it’s active duty, guard, or reserve.

But even without a pension, military service can set you on the path to financial independence (FI). The military can teach you discipline, goal setting, and perseverance. All of these traits are useful if you want to complete a multi-year project like investing for financial independence or early retirement.

Military servicemembers have unique investment opportunities available to them that civilians do not. (We’ve already covered some of these, such as the TSP, SDP, and tax-free income.) However, the principles of FI apply to military servicemembers the same as civilians.

Achieving financial freedom in the military is simple, but not easy:

  • Save and invest enough of your money until you have 25x your annual expenses invested in low-cost, total stock and bond market index funds.
  • Now you can safely withdraw 4% of your invested assets annually to pay for your living expenses.
  • Voila, you don’t need to work anymore!

As I say, the concept is simple — but it’s not easy to achieve. How quickly you can achieve 25x of your expenses depends primarily on your saving rate.

  • Save 10% a year and you’ll achieve financial freedom in 51 years.
  • Save 25% and you cut it down to 32 years.
  • Save 50% and you are looking at only 17 years of investing to achieve financial independence.

Seventeen years is less time than it takes to earn a military retirement pension! Combine a military pension with FI and you’re looking at a fat retirement.

Or, if you don’t make it to 20 years (like 80% of your brothers and sisters in arms), you can still achieve FI by combining your military savings with whatever your post-military plans are.


I hope this was a valuable introduction to military finances. Armed with these lessons, I believe that every single servicemember can achieve financial success during and after their military career.

And remember: Most advice that applies to civilians applies just the same to military folks. It ultimately comes down to: “spend less than you earn and invest the difference”. That’s all it takes to eventually become financially independent. How long that takes is up to you!

The post How to manage money for financial success in the U.S. military appeared first on Get Rich Slowly.

Scared of money? (Why & how to overcome your fear today)

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The more I see people talk about money, the more I see how SCARED we are of it.

How we let others poison our views of money.

And how easily we use negative words to describe it.

Here’s an email I got from someone who read my book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. What do you notice?

“Frick it, I guess I’ll write the email…

Money stresses me out. My parents didn’t teach me anything about it and I’m very dependent right now. I did a year of nonprofit and made about 10k after taxes and it was miserable, so I figured if I can pull that off for one year then I can make it work. And I did! But I don’t know if I’ll hit it this year (it’s a bit depressing and a big source of anxiety). I think time is the name of the game though, the career is moving forward, hopefully, game sales will kick in passive income.

For the “rich life” I’m a simple person. I want enough money to be able to travel. I want to own a dog. I want a kitchen with an island. I want to have a nice desktop and a nice coffee table. My partner doesn’t want to own a house but I kind of do. Since I don’t have a full-time job outside of my freelancing which is currently in a drought period, I don’t have really ANY money, averaging about $250 a week.”

My response:

“Good stuff. Great to meet you

Now I want you to look at your email and count the number of times you use negative words to describe your life/money. How many do you count?”

His response (notice the skepticism):

“Ha, I can’t tell if this was an automated message or not but you got me there!

Depending on your definition, about 6-10.”

6-10 IN A SHORT-ASS EMAIL. (Well, compared to the kinds I write…like the one you’re reading. LOL.) Finally, my response:

It’s not automated.


Now, can you rewrite that entire email to be POSITIVE instead of negative? Send it over my way.

This guy didn’t even notice his reflexive negativity with money. It’s become like a dull toothache, something he gets used to. And since negativity is his worldview — the “lens” through which he views everything — I guarantee it’s an invisible “drag” on his entire life.

I asked him to rewrite his email to be POSITIVE instead of negative because sometimes, it takes someone pointing out your pattern to shake you out of it.

When I talk to people about money, here are the most common words they use to describe it:



“Is it too late”

(What words come to mind for you?)

But it’s even more revealing when you listen to the ways they talk about money.

What they say: “What’s my Rich Life? Well, I just want to go on vacation with my kids a couple times a year, nothing fancy…”
What they really mean: Notice those last two words — “nothing fancy.” When people talk about their Rich Lives, they almost always minimize their own dreams. When you’ve spent your entire life worrying about what can go wrong with money, it’s almost impossible to dream.

What they say: “How do I KNOW your programs will work?” OR “Will this book work for me if I live in Bolivia and I have a lazy left eye and I only eat mussels on Mondays?”

What they really mean: “I have a finite amount of money. If I spend it here, I need to know it will absolutely work, otherwise, I will have wasted my money…and there’s no way for me to ever earn more”

Are you about to say what I think you’re about to say?

What they say: “Even if I made $250,000/year, I wouldn’t eat out at a nice restaurant like that. What a waste!”

What they really mean: “I have never eaten at a place like that and I don’t want to be the kind of person who “has” to go there to enjoy food. I’m simple.” (One level deeper: “I’m nervous that if I ate there, I might actually like it. I don’t trust myself to avoid going there every single week and spending all of my money”)

What they say: “I shouldn’t get a credit card.”

What they actually mean: “I don’t trust myself to control my spending, therefore I need to restrict myself”

What they say: “I went to [ANY FOREIGN COUNTRY] and they tried to rip me off because I was an American”

What they really mean: “Well, yeah, I could have afforded an extra $5 for those postcards…but I HATE BEING RIPPED OFF. If someone else is winning and I am losing, I HATE IT”

So many of us make day-to-day money decisions, never understanding the “invisible scripts” that actually guide these decisions. And in America, money is driven by FEAR.

FEAR that we’ll never have enough.

FEAR that we can’t make more of it.

And FEAR that someone will judge us for our spending — or even what we want to spend on.

I hate this. That’s why I show you how to identify your Money Dials, the things you LOVE spending on, then I show you how to spend MORE on it.

Talking to a small group about money psychology. On book tour, I hosted private events in NYC event at Thompson Square Studios (NYC) and our Hills Penthouse (West Hollywood). As a reader of IWT, you can get your first month free at either of these locations. Please reach out directly to

I also show you how to get psychologically comfortable with the idea of changing your identity. People say “Money changes people,” in disgust, as if it’s a bad thing. Money should change you! It should let you dream bigger, it should let you live an easier or more adventurous life, and it should let you bring others with you (learn about the psychology of the wealthy).

But you can’t do that if you’re stuck thinking about money as a source of anxiety and fear.

An interviewer recently asked me what I would change from my 20s. I said, “I would have more FUN. I was too rigid. But the times where I had the most fun and I was the most successful was I just loosened up and tried a bunch of new things”

With money, try these different approaches.

Know that you can trust yourself. Know that you can eat at a really nice restaurant once for the experience — and truly enjoy it — but trust that I’m not going to trip and fall and end up going there every single week. You can also use credit cards without overspending (follow the systems in my book). You can pay off your debt and stay out of debt. You can become Rich and do good. Trust yourself.

Know that you can create more money. You can negotiate your salary — or find an entirely new job. You can start a business, even if you don’t have an idea. You can build your network to sidestep people with 10 years’ more experience than you — and get perks you’ve never dreamed of. All of those things can dramatically increase your income. Above all, your money is not a fixed pie that you have to exhaustively guard and protect. You can also expand the size of your pie.

Stop being afraid of waste. In puritanical America, one of the biggest no-nos is WASTE. Oh no! Ramit, if I start spending more on the things I love, I might “waste” some of my money!

How do I “KNOW” that your book will solve my exact, highly specific problem that I worry about every fucking day of my life? If it doesn’t, I’ve wasted $10!!!! Scammer!!!

Oh no! Ramit, what if I hire someone and they don’t handle my SEO, my WordPress uploads, design all my graphics, triple my conversion rates, write my entire email funnel, and create a new webinar system? I might have WaSTed the $13/hour I tried to pay them!!

Oh no, there’s so much government waste! We should ONLY focus on cutting government waste. Especially that one thing I really hate. What? It only represents 0.03% of total spend? No, that can’t be right. Anyway, we need to handle WaSTe. Also, don’t talk about raising my historically low taxes, you socialist.

If you spend your entire life worrying about waste, you miss a simple fact of life: In any system of sufficient complexity, there will always be waste. Yes, you should take measures to control it, but you should also accept that there will be a certain amount of waste — and move on!

I know that I’m going to buy courses and attend conferences that won’t be perfect for me. I know I’m going to eat at a restaurant that’s unmemorable. I know I’m going to make bad hires.


I’d rather try new experiences and learn with each one…than to sit back and let the bogeyman of “waste” scare me from doing anything at all.

So much of personal finance advice take your latent fears and heightens them.

NO! Don’t use a credit card, you might overspend a little!

NO! Don’t eat out at that restaurant, what a waste!

NO! Don’t try to negotiate your salary, you should just be happy you have a job!

If you spent the last ten years worrying about your waste and all the bad things you might do, you’ve accepted the message that you should be SCARED. That you’re an organism that simply reacts to whatever’s around you — that you have no agency or control.

Meanwhile, the people who have gone on offense have taken control of their own finances, their own psychology, started to earn more, and happily spend on the things they love. No anxiety. Just confidence and the systems to back it up.

You listen to these fears and end up frightened and anxious, sitting around worrying about all the things that can go wrong with money.

Or you can go on offense. You can take control of your money.

You can build a plan to spend extravagantly on the things you love.

You can EMBRACE making mistakes, knowing you’ll waste a little money, but it’s fine, because over the long term, those mistakes are minor, and you can create more wealth for yourselves.

You choose.

In my book, I wrote this:

Play offense, not defense. Too many of us play defense with our finances. We wait until the end of the month, then look at our spending and shrug: “I guess I spent that much.” We accept onerous fees. We don’t question complicated advice because it’s given to us in a language we don’t understand. In this book, I’ll teach you to go on offense with your credit cards, your banks, your investments, and even your own money psychology. My goal is for you to craft your own Rich Life by the end of Chapter 9. Get aggressive! No one’s going to do it for you.

My dream is for you to remove the shackles of negativity around money. To decide what you LOVE spending on, and spend more on it, so money goes from a source of anxiety and doubts to a source of joy and possibility and purpose.

Get my book here

And comment here if this resonates with you. I want to hear from you.

Scared of money? (Why & how to overcome your fear today) is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

Highlights from my 15-year Stanford reunion

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A few weeks ago, Cass and I flew to Stanford for my 15-year college reunion. 

Going to Stanford was transformative for me. It taught me what excellence really is. I met amazing friends. And Stanford gave me the freedom to explore topics like technology and social psychology, persuasion, cults, deception, and ethics.

I shared some of my highlights and takeaways from my trip on Instagram, and now I’d like to share them with you here.

I wanted to give Cass a tour before the reunion, starting with the spot that had the most impact on me during my 5 years at Stanford.

Los Altos Taqueria.
The best Mexican place near Stanford.

Should we move to California?

After tacos, Cass and I headed over to campus, walking through Stanford’s iconic Palm Drive entrance. This “Welcome to Stanford” banner was one of the first things I saw when I visited for the first time, and I’ll never forget it.

Welcome to Stanford

During my first visit, I was really surprised at all the trees along Palm Drive. I thought, “Why don’t they hire someone to do some landscaping?” But it turns out, this is all intentional. 

This is an 8,180-acre campus with foothills, plains, and more than 43,000 trees. There are all kinds of animals, birds, hikes, places to walk.

The Oval

Look at that grass! What does it take to maintain something like this? It’s the same love I feel toward luxury hotels. It’s not just that it’s beautiful, it’s that there’s a team of people looking after you, and they value beauty and care.

We were lucky to be there on a leisurely Wednesday afternoon and take our time exploring the campus. And if we got tired, we could always head back to our hotel and take a nap. No rush. We could rest and come back tomorrow. That’s the beauty of a flexible schedule, even in the middle of the week. 

We headed over to Memorial Church, a beautifully architected, interdenominational church that was built in the late 1800s. Many alums get married there — there’s a years-long waiting list. Cass was blown away, even though there were so many other mind-blowing buildings on campus. She said, “Wow, I’ve never been on a campus with a church.” I loved seeing Stanford through her eyes.

Memorial Church

Cass built SoulCycle’s retail business before starting her own business, Next Level Wardrobe. So I wanted to take her to the Stanford Student Enterprises store, a student-run merch store on campus. I worked at SSE as the marketing manager, one of my first business jobs, and met a lot of friends who went on to start their own businesses. It was great to see it still running 15 years later.


One of the first things I noticed when I came to Stanford was that all the classroom doors were unlocked. You could walk in and explore, use a conference room if you wanted to. There were essentially unlimited resources. 

What a beautiful symbol. It’s hard to get in, but once you do, they trust you. 

I created my business in the same way. It’s hard to be able to join — we don’t let everyone in. But once you’re in, we offer you amazing resources. We call you, we check in on you, we let you join any of our other courses.

It’s also a way for me to think about who I want to be surrounded with. I want to trust the people around me. Coming here taught me that you can treat people like they’re going to do GOOD by default. This profoundly shaped the way I think about my life, my business, and the people I want to be around.

Later, we dined at Tamarine, an upscale restaurant in Palo Alto. When I was a student, this restaurant was too expensive for me. Now as an adult, being able to come here on a whim shows me how far I’ve come.

The wine director even stopped by to say hello and say he and his wife were both IWT students. Thank you Brent and Liz!

On Day 2, we looked at all our breakfast options. American, eggs? No thanks. It was back to…

The day of the reunion was packed with activities, and I got to meet up with old friends and catch up.

We sat in on class panels, where alums talked about what they’d learned since Stanford. I’m deep in the self-development world, and I appreciated hearing moments when people realized what they were doing wasn’t working. 

These conversations can’t always happen in public, just look at high earners asking for advice on Reddit. That’s why I take pride in surrounding my students with other people who understand.

We also visited my old stomping grounds at the Program in Science, Technology and Society. 

This is a very small major at Stanford, and most people found it confusing and wanted something easier to explain, like computer science or econ. But I got to customize my curriculum and studied technology, psychology, persuasion, social influence, ethics, and more. All of this plays into my business today. And I found that if you tell your story right, people are fascinated, not confused.

After my reunion, I got to spend a day with my family in San Francisco. I took them to the Cal Academy to show them the aquarium and penguins. 

Imagine being a kid and seeing this for the first time!

We took a break in a cafe for a bit. My friend Nick Gray once told me that if he went to a museum, he would spend 90 mins tops, and the first 30 would be at a cafe planning his trip. That blew my mind, since I grew up only going to a place once, so we’d spend the entire day seeing everything. This time, I slowed it down, knowing we could always come back. A totally different experience.

When I shared all this on Instagram, some of you were asking how much student loan debt I had after leaving Stanford. I got scholarships that paid my entire undergrad and grad work there. Little known fact: Elite colleges are incredibly generous with their financial aid. (To find out more about my scholarship system, click here.) 

My parents used to say, “Be good enough to get in. The money will take care of itself.”

This is an example of the subtle ways parents who revere education show their values. They visit colleges, talk about why education matters, introduce you to professors and teach you to respect them.

My dad once brought our entire family to Berkeley. He put my sisters on his shoulder and said, “One day, you can come here.” And they did.

My scholarships also paid for ANY books I wanted. This was one of the best things in my life. I literally had an account at the bookstore. Whatever I bought, any book, would be covered. This was my first example of true abundance with books. Ever since then, I never think twice about buying a book. This is the origin story of Ramit’s Book Buying Rule!

I loved sharing my time at Stanford with you on Instagram, and loved reading your comments. Follow me there for more travel stories and send me a DM anytime. I read them all.

Highlights from my 15-year Stanford reunion is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

Using the “Eisenhower Box” To Set Spending Priorities

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“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight Eisenhower

One of my favorite mental tools for organizing my to-do list is a simple strategy I learned from Stephen Covey. Basically, everything you need to do or might want to do in life can be organized by two questions: is it urgent or not, and is it important or not.

One way to look at this is by simply drawing two lines across the center of a page, one horizontal and one vertical, so that they cross in the middle and create four boxes, one upper left, one upper right, one lower left, and one lower right.

The upper left corner, which I’ll call “quadrant one,” contains things that are both urgent and important. Think of a huge work task that needs to be done by 5 PM today. They’re the top priority things.

The upper right corner, which I’ll call “quadrant two,” contains things that are urgent but not important. Think of many of the emails sitting in your inbox or notifications on your phone. They’re demanding your attention now, but aren’t really that important.

The lower left corner, which I’ll call “quadrant three,” contains things that are important but not urgent. Think of stopping by the HR office at your workplace to change your 401(k) settings. These things really need to get done eventually, but no one’s demanding that they be done right away.

The lower right corner, which I’ll call “quadrant four,” contains things that are neither important nor urgent. Think of dealing with a pile of old mail. Maybe you should do it someday, but it’s not vital and it’s not shouting at you to get done.

I often use this method for figuring out which tasks need to get done. What I’ve really figured out over the years is that the most important piece of using this for figuring out what to do today is to figure out what goes in quadrant two (urgent but not important) and quadrant three (important but not urgent) and utterly prioritizing the quadrant three stuff over the quadrant two stuff. Prioritizing important-but-not-urgent tasks over urgent-but-not-important tasks is hard because those important-but-not-urgent tasks aren’t shouting at you to get done, but the urgent-but-not-important tasks are yelling at you even though they’re really less important.

The “Eisenhower box” is merely doing this on a physical sheet of paper, drawing out the four quadrants and putting everything on your to-do list into one of those four, then doing the “urgent-and-important” stuff first, then the “important-but-not-urgent” stuff before bothering with the “urgent-but-not-important” stuff. It is really helpful when you’ve got a lot of stuff on your plate.

Here’s the interesting part: you can use almost this exact method to help prioritize your spending and figure out what “fat” you can cut from your spending going forward so you can achieve your financial goals.

Sit down with your credit card bill and a blank sheet of paper. Divide that paper into four quadrants by drawing a vertical line down the middle and a horizontal line across the middle.

In the top left one, write “Important and Urgent” and underline it. Write “Urgent but Not Important” in the top right one and underline it. Then do the same with “Important but Not Urgent” in the lower left and “Not Urgent or Important” in the lower right.

Then, go through everything in your credit card statement. For each one, ask yourself two questions.

Was this purchase urgent? Meaning, could you have easily waited to make this purchase? Was there a real need to make that purchase at the exact moment you made it, or could you have waited a day or two?

Was this purchase important? Was it something you truly needed? Was it something that is going to improve your life in any lasting real way? Is that purchase truly in line with a primary life goal?

Be honest with those questions, and the answers will tell you which quadrant that expense should go into. Just write it down in that quadrant, with just enough detail to recall what it is, then move onto the next item on your credit card bill.

For example, I might look at my credit card bill and see a few entries like this:
$30 at the local game store for a new board game that was on sale
$70 at the local discount grocery store for groceries
$6 at the convenience store for a snack
$210 at the county courthouse for annual vehicle registration

The new board game would probably go straight into the “urgent but not important” quadrant. It was a sale, making it urgent, but it was a completely unplanned purchase for a game I’m not even sure that I wanted.

The groceries would probably go into the “important and urgent” category, as we need food to eat and the stuff I buy at the discount grocer is usually very low priced. These are food staples.

The convenience store snack was clearly “neither important nor urgent.” I had the munchies and bought something I certainly didn’t need. It was just meeting a fleeting craving and there was nothing else special about that moment, the definition of neither important nor urgent.

The annual vehicle registration would definitely be “important but not urgent.” Nothing in my life would be immediately problematic if I waited until the due date to pay it, or even past the due date for a while into the grace period. Even beyond that, it’s likely things would be fine. Eventually, though, it would need to be paid or else I’d be facing a serious fine should I be pulled over – it’s an important expense but not one that needs to be paid immediately.

In the end, you’ll have a lot of stuff written on your sheet. There will probably be some things in each quadrant.

Going forward, you can completely dump everything written in the lower right quadrant, the not important or urgent stuff. All of that is a waste of your money and life energy. If you did get minimal value out of it, that value could obviously be much greater with a different purchase. For example, I really don’t need to ever stop at the convenience store for a snack. I don’t need to buy a cup at the coffee kiosk at Target. It’s all fleeting junk that’s a waste of money and life energy once you get beyond filling a short term craving.

Similarly, you can dump most things in the upper right quadrant as well, the urgent but not important stuff. Not everything there should vanish – there are things in there that were perhaps a bit of healthy spontaneity – but it should be a reminder that a lot of spontaneity ends up not doing anything for you in the long run. Those expenses should remind you that some spontaneity is good, but a lot of it is pretty useless, just a little momentary burst of fun that fades and leaves you right back where you started. I didn’t need that board game, although I did spend a lot less on it than I could have. It’s not wholly regrettable, but largely so.

The expenses that should remain in your life are the ones on the left, with maybe just an item or two from the upper right. That’s the important stuff, the stuff that matters, the stuff that sustains your life and makes it worthwhile. All of the rest is stuff you can discard going forward.

You can use this experiment as a tool to help you hone in on what’s important to you and which expenses, going forward, you can cut out or minimize to stay on focus with what’s important to you. This isn’t a tool for correcting the mistakes of the past, but to guide you to better decisions going forward.

It’s worth nothing that no one is perfect at this. We all have expenses that are in the “not important” quadrants. The goal shouldn’t be perfection, but to be better than before. The goal shouldn’t be zero expenses in those two quadrants, but fewer expenses going forward with a steady decline over time.

This all adds up to a healthy direction for your financial future, where your spending is directly in line with the things most important to you. The simple act of reflection, using the Eisenhower box method, is a really powerful tool for honing that spending instinct.

Good luck!

The post Using the “Eisenhower Box” To Set Spending Priorities appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

A Guide to Inexpensive Holiday Cooking (and Why You Should Get Started Now!)

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Last week, I shared a lengthy article on how to make meal prep more efficient. Over the weekend, however, I started to look ahead at the coming months and recognized that the late fall and winter holidays are coming up quick on the calendar, with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away and the December holidays right on their heels.

I realized, based on my past experiences with holiday cooking, that the big meals that many families prepare for holiday gatherings are prime examples of the value and practice of meal prepping. Most of the strategies that I discussed in the article last week apply perfectly to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and other winter holiday meals. Wherever families gather for a big meal, these strategies are valuable to employ.

Thus, I thought it might make sense to walk through how to use those strategies specifically to plan a family meal. I’m going to use Thanksgiving as a model here, but this strategy works for any big meal for any family gathering.

The best part? You can get started right now – and, in fact, you probably should.

Figure Out the Guest List and the Meal Plan

This is something you can start doing now for Thanksgiving, if possible, and it’s always a good idea to start thinking about this at least a couple of weeks in advance if you’re preparing a big meal with lots of dishes for lots of people in your home and you’re also working full time. The more you start planning in advance, the easier it will be on the day of the meal, the more time you’ll actually have to spend with people, the less expensive it will be, and the less stress it will produce.

Simply make a list of everyone who will be coming to your big holiday meal, while noting any specific dietary concerns that any of the guests might have. What you’re aiming for is an approximate head count – it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you don’t want to plan for 8 and have 20 show up (or vice versa).

At the same time, start making a meal plan. Give yourself plenty of time for this so that you can give it some real thought, look at a variety of ideas for main dishes and sides, and make sure you’re meeting everyone’s dietary needs (what can you serve that’s vegan that everyone will enjoy, for example).

A good place to start with this would be to look at some sample Thanksgiving menus. Don’t be afraid to pull elements from one and add them to another, or to substitute in a traditional family dish that you have a recipe for into a meal plan, or to cut out a few items because it seems overwhelming.

Transform the Meal Plan into a Grocery List

The next step is to turn that meal plan into a grocery list. Again, you’ll want to do this as early as possible – even this week or this weekend.

Again, this is pretty easy. Just pull out all of the recipes for the things you want to make for the big meal, look at what items you already have and are confident you will have when it gets close to that meal, and then make a giant list out of everything that’s missing.

The reason that it’s a good idea to make it now rather than later is that you don’t have to shop for this whole list all at once. Rather, you can – and should – shop for it in parts since you have so much lead time. You can bring home ingredients well in advance of the big day and store them in your cupboard or freezer or refrigerator as appropriate.

Shopping for the list in pieces lets you utilize grocery store flyers to get the items on sale. Each week, for the two or three weeks leading up to the holiday, you can look at your grocery store flyer, figure out what items on your big list are on sale, and buy those items immediately. Then, when you’re several days out from the event (perhaps the Saturday or Sunday before), you can get everything still on the list that doesn’t need to be super-fresh, and then pick up a few final items that must be fresh two or so days before the big event.

Doing things this way will cut your meal cost tremendously. In the weeks leading up to a big holiday, lots of the usual elements of big holiday meals go on sale at grocery stores. You’ll find sales on turkeys and hams and potatoes and bread and rolls and flour and all kinds of things in those weeks leading up to the holiday, but they won’t necessarily appear all on the same week.

Make a Prep Plan

The next thing you should do, once most of the ingredients are in hand, is to make a “prep plan.”

Essentially, a “prep plan” is just a division of all of the recipes into a giant pile of steps in which you identify which steps can be done days in advance of the big day and you do all of them early.

So, let’s say you have a recipe, we’ll call it Recipe A, with a list of ingredients that includes some tasks like chopping and then includes seven steps, and you have another recipe (Recipe B) that has a list of ingredients with some more inherent tasks, like cooking some rice, and then includes six steps.

On your “prep plan,” then, you have a bunch of steps you can include. You have tasks for all of the various ingredient preparations, then tasks for each of the steps in each recipe, and so on.

Here’s the thing: most of the steps on that prep plan can be done well in advance of the big day. You can spread most of those tasks out across the week before your big meal so that you’re not overwhelmed with tasks on a single day.

So, one great approach is to simply sort these tasks by day. Which tasks can be done three or more days in advance? Which tasks should be done one or two days in advance? Organize all of those tasks by day so that you have a checklist of things to do each day, with each individual checklist small enough as to not be overwhelming.

Planning like this makes it easier to not spend extra money on convenience steps, like buying expensive pre-cut onions or pre-cooked mashed potatoes. Those convenience foods are often far more expensive and often aren’t as good as the real thing, but the real thing does take time. However, if you spread out the tasks like this, you can do the real thing and save money and have better results.

The Sunday Before Should Be a Huge Prep Day

The Sunday before a big meal (or the last day beforehand where you don’t have to work) is a great day to do a lot of prep work. You can do almost everything short of actually putting dishes in the oven on that day. Your “prep plan” should have a lot of tasks for that last fully free day before the big day.

Some of the things you can take care of:
+ Full assembly of some dishes. While you might not want to fully assemble everything this far in advance, you can definitely assemble some dishes and keep them covered in the fridge until the big day. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can definitely prepare a lot of the ingredients and prepare them the night before the big event. Your goal is to have the meals ready to be put directly in the oven or put on the stove top.
+ Chopping of all vegetables. Many dishes require chopped vegetables of some kind – chopped onions, chopped pepper, chopped carrots, and so on. Chop all of your vegetables in advance and save them in small containers in the fridge so that they can be easily added to meals. When doing this, I usually label the containers with a bit of masking tape and marker so I know what they’re for so that they’re easy to grab when I’m actually assembling the dishes.
+ Making of sauces and gravies. If any meals require a sauce or a gravy, you can make all of that in advance and save it in a container in the fridge. As with the vegetables, label the containers with masking tape and marker so you know what they are and what dishes they might go in.
+ Sauteing of vegetables and meats. If you have any meats or vegetables that need sautéed, you can do this in advance, save the sautéed vegetables or meats in a container in the fridge, and deglaze the pan by dumping a bit of water or broth in there and then pouring that right in the container to maximize the flavor. Again, this can all be saved until you actually need it so you’re not having to do this on the day. Also, as with the chopped vegetables and the sauces, labeling the containers with masking tape and marker helps tremendously.
+ Cooking rice or beans or other pre-cooked sides or ingredients. If any of your sides or dishes require beans or rice, you can absolutely cook all of that in advance and store it until it’s actually needed. I often do this during regular weeks when we need beans for meals. As with the other stuff, small containers in the fridge that are labeled with masking tape and marker are perfect for storage.

Isn’t that a lot of containers? It sure is, but you can easily buy bundles of very cheap food storage containers at most grocery stores. The best part is that if you have a lot of food storage containers on hand, they’re also going to make for great leftover containers after the meal, and if they’re cheap ones, it’s not a big deal if people just keep them.

Spread Out Other Prep Tasks Throughout the Evenings Beforehand

While I definitely recommend using your last full day at home before the big meal for a lot of meal prep, some tasks need to wait until closer to the meal. In those cases, use your evenings for some of the tasks.

For example, there are many meals that you don’t want to fully assemble until closer to the big day, but you might want to chop the vegetables further in advance. So, you can chop the vegetables on Sunday and then assemble the dish itself on Tuesday to store in the fridge for final cooking on Thursday. You might want to wait to cube the potatoes for a potato dish until Wednesday, for example, and then let them soak overnight.

If you do five tasks a night for three nights, that’s 15 tasks you don’t have to deal with or stress out about on the big day.

Utilize the Slow Cooker

A vital element that many people overlook when preparing big meals is the utility of a slow cooker. Slow cookers are invaluable when preparing all kinds of things, from cooking beans to cooking potatoes to cooking meat.

If you have a slow cooker, you should absolutely include it in your meal prepping plans if you have any use for it at all. It’s great for cooking vegetables or beans or other ingredients while you’re at work so that you can come home and the ingredients you need are immediately ready for use.

Even better, slow cookers are almost perfect for cooking and mashing potatoes and sweet potatoes on the big day. You can start them early in the morning and just forget about them entirely until it’s time to drain the potatoes, season them, and mash them. You may have even more uses on the big day, so you may want to consider borrowing one from a friend or a family member to use that day.

Again, it’s all about getting simple tasks out of the way so that you’re not overwhelmed with other tasks at the last minute, which often results in a lot of stress and a lot of last minute problems and a lot of time spent away from family and guests.

Aim to Have As Many Things As Oven-Ready as Possible the Night Before

One great target to have with your “prep plan” is to have as many dishes ready to go in the oven (or to the stovetop) for final cooking as possible on the night before the big meal. This ensures that you mostly just need to put things in the oven, on the stove top, or in the slow cooker the next day.

Yes, there are some things that will just have to wait until the last minute, particularly if you’re trying to make fresh bread items, but if you’re aiming to have everything ready to go in the oven the night before, you leave yourself with absolutely minimal tasks for the big day.

Carefully Plot Out Your Final Cooking Strategy

One vital thing to do on the last day is to carefully plot out your cooking plan. What dishes need to go in the oven when? What temperature does the oven need to be set at? What goes in the slow cooker when? Plan it all out and give yourself a little breathing room at every step so that everything doesn’t fall into chaos if something’s not done in time.

For example, you might want to serve a meal at 4 PM. In that case, you might have a plan like this:

10 AM – Potatoes go in slow cooker
11 AM – Turkey goes in oven at 375 F
2 PM – Set the table
3:30 PM – Turkey comes out of oven, given to Uncle Bob for carving, casseroles go in oven at 400 F
3:30 PM – 3:45 PM – Drinks are put out on the table
3:45 PM – 3:50 PM Drain potatoes and mash them
3:50 PM – 4 PM – Put out other dishes on the table
4 PM – Casseroles come out of oven and go on table, turkey goes on table, gather everyone to eat

Yours might be more detailed than this, but you get the idea.

This kind of plan, especially coupled with the prep work already done, gives you a lot of breathing room and flexibility on the big day. The only time you really need to be in the kitchen is during the last half hour, with a few steps into the kitchen beforehand throughout the day. You can enlist other family members for tasks like setting the table (a good task for preteens and teenagers).

Again, this is all about minimizing your stress on the day of the event. If you have a clear plan in place that has some breathing room for a few missteps, your day will probably go off quite well and you’ll get to spend a lot of time with family. Even better, everything will have come together with minimal expense.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that a lot of these strategies revolve around planning, and that’s intentional. A big family holiday meal almost always comes off much more smoothly and with much lower stress and, perhaps most importantly, at the lowest cost if you invest some planning and forethought into the meal and take care of as many steps in advance as you possibly can.

While I’m not preparing a Thanksgiving meal this year thanks to some wonderful friends and family members, I am going to be preparing a Christmas dinner for my immediate family and (likely) a few additional relatives and friends, and this article basically outlines the strategy I’m going to use. I’ll have the meal planned likely three weeks in advance. I’ll be buying ingredients off of the grocery flyers for at least two weeks, probably hitting three different weekly flyers. I’ll be doing lots of prep in the evenings for the last few days before the holiday, and I’ll be running off of a “cooking plan” on Christmas Day in between unwrapping presents and spending time with family and I don’t want to be stressed out or in the kitchen all day on the big day.

I’m sharing this article now because I know that many people will want a similar experience with their own holiday moments, and Thanksgiving is a big holiday for many families in America. Some families even combine all winter holidays into one family gathering and celebrate it on that last weekend in November, and I hope that these strategies will help make it all inexpensive and low stress.

Good luck!

The post A Guide to Inexpensive Holiday Cooking (and Why You Should Get Started Now!) appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

14 Ways I Easily Repurpose Used Items at Home

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One of my favorite simple ways to save money is to just repurpose things that I might otherwise throw out. There are many things that seem to have lived out their primary purpose that, rather than tossing them in the trash, I’d far rather find a second use for them.

This past weekend, while puttering around the house doing a lot of little tasks, I kept noticing all of these different things I had repurposed over time and I started making a list of them. Here are 14 of those things. I hope you’ll find some of them useful.

Use old t-shirts for household cleaning and window washing. If a t-shirt starts to get too beat up to wear, I like to toss it in a rag bag that we keep in the laundry room. Then, whenever we’re doing household cleaning, like washing windows or cleaning the walls, I’ll go there first.

Old t-shirts, along with a spray of window cleaner, do a wonderful job of getting windows looking sparkling clean. Similarly, they work great with a bit of household cleaner for cleaning the kitchen floor (basically, anywhere where you find floors that aren’t carpet) or cleaning marks off the walls. If the t-shirt gets grungy after some cleaning, it’s no big deal – just toss it in the normal laundry and when it’s dry, toss it right back in the rag bag. You can get tons and tons of uses out of it.

Even better are the free t-shirts you’ll sometimes get at parades or other events. If they don’t fit anyone in our family, they’re usually directly inserted into the rag bag. (In fact, over the years, we’ve had so many that I’m now a bit choosy about them and prefer really soft ones that do a good job of cleaning.)

Use miscellaneous ingredients on the verge of getting thrown out for soup or stock, if compatible in flavor. We’ll often serve things like minimally-seasoned vegetables as side dishes for meals, and with many meals we’ll find ourselves with awkward leftovers, like a handful of mushrooms or a small amount of spinach. Rather than throwing them out, I’ll keep them in the fridge for a few days and if we have a healthy amount of a few different things and they’re even remotely compatible in flavor, I’ll make a soup or a stock out of them.

If I’m making soup, which is the option I use if I don’t have a good meal plan, I basically just cook them in vegetable stock/broth or water, adding lots of seasonings and salt and black pepper, until it’s boiling for a few minutes, then serve it. Most of the ingredients in there are either already cooked or will cook extremely fast (like chopped spinach). If there’s something that needs to cook for a while (like, say, some raw carrots), I’ll let that boil until the vegetable’s a bit soft, then I add the other stuff for just a few minutes.

If I don’t want to make soup, I’ll often throw all of the leftover vegetables in the slow cooker in the morning and let it boil and bubble all day long. As an intermediate step, I’ll put all of the leftover veggies in a large storage container in the freezer, then when that container fills up, I’ll use all of it for stock. I’ll let it simmer with some seasonings for a very long time, then strain it and freeze it in soup containers for future use as the liquid in batches of soup (or as liquid in some casseroles).

Use old condiment bottles for new condiment mixes. Quite often, I’ll hold onto old plastic condiment bottles when they run out so that I can make a new condiment mix in that bottle and store it in the fridge.

For example, I love having a container of “fry sauce” on hand, and it’s pretty easy to make. Just add two parts mayonnaise to one part ketchup in a bowl, add two teaspoons of dill pickle juice, a teaspoon of seasoned salt, and a teaspoon of ground black pepper, and whisk it thoroughly. Spoon it into the clean condiment bottle and you have yourself an amazing dipping sauce or sandwich condiment.

I’ll experiment endlessly with variations on this sauce or completely different recipes, just to provide some variety for sandwiches or for dips.

Use old spice shaker bottles for fresh spices and new spice mixes. Rather than buying a bunch of shaker bottles for spices, I just hold onto nicer ones and refill them. Furthermore, I use some of them to make my own spice mixes.

I love going to spice stores or bulk spice sections in food co-ops to stock up on fresh spices at a pretty inexpensive price for the quantity. This lets me go home and fill up a big shaker bottle with, say, dried basil or dill or oregano that’s wonderfully fragrant and fresh.

I’ll also fill up other shaker bottles with mixes of spices that I use for specific recipes. For example, I usually have a shaker bottle of pasta sauce seasoning that I add to a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce in a saucepan. The seasoning mix consists of 4 parts basil, 4 parts onion powder, 2 parts marjoram, 2 parts garlic powder, 1 part rosemary, 1 part ground black pepper, 1 part savory, and 1/2 part cloves. I’ll just add all of that to a shaker bottle, shaking it thoroughly as I add ingredients, and then when I’m done I can just add several dashes of the mix right to diced tomatoes and tomato sauce for a great cheap pasta sauce.

Use window cleaner bottles for homemade window cleaning and general household cleaning solution. If I use up a bottle of Windex (or the store brand equivalent), I’ll save the bottle and use it for a homemade window cleaning solution. The bottle under the sink has had some kind of homemade brew in it for years.

I try lots of different recipes for it. Right now, it’s just a very watered down mix of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap (24 parts water to 1 part castile soap), which also works as a general household cleaner, so I may stick with it because I can spray it on all kinds of stuff. In the past, I used a mix of 8 parts water to 1 part vinegar with a drop or two of dishwashing liquid; it also worked well as a general household cleaner.

Use soap dispensers for homemade hand soap dispensing. I do the same thing with those little soap dispensers that you can buy at the store for hand soap next to a sink. One might just toss them after use, but we save them and refill them.

If nothing else, you can buy large jugs of hand soap refill, but we’ve been using a watered down castile soap in foaming dispensers as of late (8 parts water to 1 part castile soap). It makes a different foam than normal hand soap, but it does a great job of cleaning your hands.

Use glass jars for food storage. If I have a glass jar from the store from something like pickles or salsa or even pasta sauce, I’ll usually give it a few additional uses making simple homemade pickles or sauerkraut or saving partial batches of them. I might make a gallon jar of pickles, for example, and then want to spread them out into smaller jars, and those glass jars from the store work perfectly for this.

Similarly, after I strip off the label, I’ll use larger glass jars to store things like rice and beans in the pantry. It’s a lot easier to store an extra pound of dry rice in a glass jar than in a bag or some other awkward container, plus it’s a lot easier to see it.

Use grocery bags and egg cartons as additional packing material. We usually have several canvas bags in the car to use for groceries, but if we’re buying groceries or household supplies and don’t have those bags on hand, we’ll wind up with some plastic bags. Rather than just tossing them, I’ll save them and use them as extra packing material when we ship items. (They can, of course, be easily recycled, but we don’t have curbside recycling in our area and the nearest place to take them is more than 10 miles away.)

Balled-up plastic bag work wonderfully as packing material for most items, nestling the items inside of a cardboard box surrounded by those bags will get them to their destination safely. I often ship board games via the mail, so I’ll double-layer them in plastic grocery bags then surround the double-bagged game with balled-up bags and they arrive safe and sound.

You can use egg cartons in a similar fashion if there’s plenty of space in the box. A few empty egg cartons provide a great buffer for holding items still in a box when it is shipped.

Use coffee grounds and egg shells and used tea in the garden. We used to actively compost, but we found that we would struggle to have enough kitchen scraps to make good compost in any reasonable amount of time. Instead, we’ll take used coffee grounds and used eggshells, let them completely dry out, then run them through the blender to make a powdery mix, then spread that powder on the garden as a free fertilizer.

Just rinse the eggshells thoroughly and let them dry in a container for a week or two, and let used coffee grounds and used tea dry out for several days on a plate or a paper towel, and save them when they’re dry in a bag. Toss all of it in a blender, run it on high for 20 seconds, then take that powder and spread it on your garden. It’s a marvelous simple fertilizer.

Use egg cartons, old candles, and dryer lint to make fire starters. I’ll hang onto the last bits of old candles and when I have plenty, I’ll then hang onto paper egg cartons and dryer lint for a week or two. I turn all of that into great fire starters for campfires or fireplaces.

Just take the egg carton, stuff each well with dryer lint, then take melted candle wax and pour it thoroughly on top to “bind” the dryer lint to the egg carton. Let it dry, then when you need to start a fire, tear off an “egg” and light the paper egg container part. It’ll catch fire easily and the wax and lint mixture will burn hot and long enough for you to get some smaller pieces of wood going. It’s a great way to get a final use out of a candle that’s burned down to the nub, as well as avoid just throwing away lint and egg cartons.


Use paper towel and toilet paper rolls to make “lint logs” for fire starters. Just stuff some dryer lint into the tube, then roll up each end tightly to form a little “package” with dryer lint in the middle. Again, it’s easy to light the tube and then the lint will burn wonderfully as you get a fire going.

I find that just rolling the tube tightly is enough to make it stay in place, but if you need a little more, a small bit of masking tape is perfect, plus you can just burn it with the masking tape in place when you need the fire starter.

Use old toothbrushes as cleaning tools. When you become concerned that your old toothbrush isn’t cleaning your teeth as well as you’d like and move to a fresh one, that old brush still has some life left in it. Just clean it thoroughly and start using it as a household cleaning tool.

Toothbrushes are great at cleaning really hard to reach spots or narrow places where it’s hard to get with a rag or other tools. I often use them to clean around the edges of faucets and sinks, for example – a drop of soap on the toothbrush and some scrubbing around the edges quickly leaves those spots looking nice and clean. You can keep using an old toothbrush until most of the bristles have fallen out, getting a ton of use out of it.

Use old food storage containers for other storage purposes. Food storage containers eventually outlive their usefulness, as they’ll become cracked and don’t work quite so well for storing food any more. However, a food storage container with a tiny leak remains useful for storing bigger items, so you can transition it to another part of the house for other storage needs.

A food storage container is great for storing nails and washers. It’s great for storing bits for crafting projects. It’s great for storing board game pieces (especially the smaller food containers). It’s great for storing anything that’s small and can easily make a mess.


Use two liter plastic storage bottles to store rice. Quite often, bulk rice comes in these big awkward bags that are difficult to really use effectively in the kitchen. What you ideally want is something that can easily sit in the pantry, keep the rice fresh because it’s sealed up, and then make it really easy to dispense the rice as needed.

Two liter soda bottles are perfect for this.

Just take a few two liter bottles, wash them thoroughly, dry them out, and then you can buy jumbo bags of rice and fill a few of those bottles. Just use a wide-mouth funnel and they fill easily. Pop a cap on top and pop them in the cupboard and you’re good to go.

When you want to use rice, you simply pull out a bottle and pour. It’s easy to fill up a measuring cup with it and, as you get more experienced, you can eyeball how much you need in your cooking pot quite easily. It solves the rice storage problem with ease.

You can do the same thing with very small beans (like lentils) and popcorn, but anything much larger than that won’t pour out of the mouth easily.

The lesson here is that many things you might instinctively throw away actually have other household uses, and when you move items to those other uses, not only are you extending the item’s lifespan, you’re probably replacing the need to purchase a different item. Repurposing things I might otherwise throw away means I’m not buying things like condiment mixes or spice mixes or fire starters or storage containers or fertilizer or packing peanuts or lots of other little things.

Whenever you’re about to toss something, give it a second thought. Is there something actually useful you could do with this?

Good luck!

The post 14 Ways I Easily Repurpose Used Items at Home appeared first on The Simple Dollar.