Back-to-school shopping may be exciting for the kids who’ll get new gear, but less so for the parents who have to pay for it all.
The National Retail Federation estimates the average household with kids in elementary through high school is expected to spend about $697 on new clothes, shoes, electronics and school supplies in 2019.
Some shoppers will be able to find a little financial relief this summer as 16 states hold tax-free holidays during July and August, saving consumers from paying sales tax on certain school-related items.
Now, you may not save a ton of money by shopping during tax-free holidays. For example, if you bought $500 worth of clothes, shoes and school supplies during Florida’s tax-free weekend in a county where the sales tax is 6%, you would save only $30. But what parent wouldn’t want to save 30 bucks?
And if you use the tax-free holidays in conjunction with smart comparison shopping and deal-stacking, you’ll save even more on your back-to-school supplies.
Some states’ tax-free holidays are held over a weekend, while others are a week long. Each state has different criteria for what merchandise won’t be taxed, and many states require the purchases to be under a certain price threshold.
Tax-Free Weekends: When, Where and What
The states that have back-to-school tax-free weekends (or weeks) this year are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
When: July 19-21
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — $100 or less per item.
Books — $30 or less per item.
School supplies — $50 or less per item.
Computers and related equipment — $750 or less per item.
When: Aug. 3-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — less than $100 per item.
Clothing accessories — less than $50 per item.
School supplies — no price threshold, but must be on a state-approved list.
When: Aug. 18-24
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — less than $100 per item.
When: Aug. 2-6
What is tax-free:
Computers and certain electronics — $1,000 or less per item.
Clothing, accessories and shoes — $60 or less per item.
School supplies — $15 or less per item.
When: Aug. 2-3
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — less than $100 per item.
When: Aug. 11-17
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — $100 or less per item.
Bookbags/backpacks — the first $40 is tax-free.
When: Aug. 17-18
What is tax-free:
Most consumer products — $2,500 or less per item.
Clothing — Massachusetts does not charge any sales tax on clothes under $175 year round.
When: July 26-27
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — less than $100 per item.
When: Aug. 2-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — $100 or less per item.
School supplies — $50 or less per purchase (exception: graphing calculators must be $150 or less).
Computers and related equipment — $1,500 or less per item.
Computer software — $350 or less.
When: Aug. 2-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing, accessories and shoes — less than $100 per item.
School supplies — less than $30 per item (exceptions: backpacks, maps and globes must be under $100 and calculators must be under $200).
Computers — $1,000 or less per item.
Computer hardware — $500 or less per item.
When: Aug. 2-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — $75 or less per item.
School supplies — $20 or less per item.
School instructional materials — $20 or less per item.
When: Aug. 2-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing and shoes — less than $100 per item.
When: Aug. 2-4
What is tax-free:
Clothing, accessories and shoes — no price threshold.
School supplies — no price threshold.
Computers and related equipment — no price threshold.
Bedding, pillows, bath towels, wash cloths and shower curtains — no price threshold.
Books and musical instruments — no price threshold (if they are for school assignments).
Want to be better-informed about business and financial news, but don’t want to read The Wall Street Journal cover to cover every morning?
You’re not alone. Over a million subscribers to Morning Brew feel similarly, preferring their business news quirky rather than murky. Morning Brew dispenses with the typical dull, overly professional tone and brings a youthful swagger and hefty dose of humor to the news.
If you enjoy a good pun, puzzle, and brainteaser along with your daily financial highlights, then Morning Brew may be the perfect way to start your day.
The Story Behind Morning Brew
Compelling businesses tend to have compelling origin stories. Morning Brew is no exception.
As an undergrad business major at the University of Michigan in 2014, Alex Lieberman noticed a pattern among his fellow business students: They all wanted to appear informed and claimed to read The Wall Street Journal every day, except that they didn’t. Not in full, anyway; they glanced through it, giving it a few minutes at most. Often, they missed key takeaways by trying to consume an entire newspaper over a rushed dining-hall breakfast.
So for fun, Lieberman launched what he called The Market Corner to his friends, a summary of the day’s business news told with some good old-fashioned college snark. One of the first subscribers, Austin Rief, reached out to Lieberman to ask if he wanted help with the project. The two teamed up, and before Lieberman graduated in 2015, they rebranded their little newsletter as Morning Brew. After graduating, Lieberman continued cranking out Morning Brew as a side gig with Rief, despite a demanding day job at Morgan Stanley.
Readership grew faster than Lieberman anticipated, and early sponsors started expressing interest. By 2016, Lieberman left Morgan Stanley, and when Rief graduated in 2017, he dove full-time into Morning Brew. Before the end of the year, the two had raised $750,000 in seed funding. Most of that came from friends and family, proving that your personal connections make a viable option for funding your small business.
By January 2018, Morning Brew reached 125,000 subscribers. By November 2018, the two co-founders made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Media List. And when the ball dropped to close out 2018, Morning Brew had topped $3 million in revenue – all with a team of only 11 full-time employees.
What You Get From Morning Brew
It’s hard not to appreciate the combination of brevity and wit that Morning Brew offers. When I read through my first edition of Morning Brew, I was treated to a pop quiz followed by a series of quick news summaries with titles such as “Disney Shoots First, Asks Questions Vader,” a brief outline of Disney’s gamble on its new Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park.
The non-existent price tag is nice too; subscribing is free.
The Morning Brew newsletter goes out daily Monday through Saturday. It opens with an interesting tidbit or piece of trivia to set the tone and remind you this isn’t the business section of your dad’s newspaper. From there, it may include a pop quiz or brainteaser.
Next, it outlines six pre-market figures, plus the daily price trend of each for context:
Dow-Jones Industrial Average
10-Year Treasury Yield
Price of gold
Price of oil
After a sentence or two recapping the forces shaping the market today, Morning Brew jumps into the meat of the newsletter: a series of quick business news stories. For example, “iTunes Is Going to the Operating System in the Sky” outlined Apple’s plans to phase out iTunes in eight punchy sentences.
On Mondays, Morning Brew breaks down the economic calendar for the week. Events such as Federal Reserve meetings, major earnings reports, and significant political events make the cut.
And for fun, you get quirky little quizzes with titles such as “Quizimodo,” sporting an image of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Morning Brew wraps up with a light “Breakroom” section summarizing sports news and anything else noteworthy going on in the world. On Fridays, there’s a puzzle here, for which anything goes.
All in all, the daily newsletter consists of easy-to-skim, entertaining business and financial news. It doesn’t center around one single industry but instead aims to keep readers informed about the big picture of business and money trends.
Morning Brew is funded by advertisers. And it’s an impressive range of advertisers at that, with names including Fidelity Investments, Discover Card, and Duke University.
But you don’t have to worry about being bombarded with ads; Morning Brew features only one advertising sponsor per newsletter. They reference the advertiser in two places: a mention and logo toward the top and a Sponsored section in the middle of the newsletter. And since Morning Brew writes the ad copy on behalf of the sponsor, it feels seamless and integrated into the newsletter.
Also, in the Breakroom section at the bottom of the newsletter, Morning Brew often includes a reference to a non-sponsor affiliate as an additional source of revenue. To their credit, they mark each affiliate link and disclose it as such for transparency.
To build their audience, Morning Brew relies heavily on word-of-mouth marketing, which accounts for 40% of their new subscribers. Part of what fuels that word-of-mouth success is a rewards program. As readers refer new subscribers, they become eligible for an ascending series of freebies.
These start with the Sunday “Light Roast” newsletter, which is only available to readers who have referred at least three other subscribers. This premium Sunday edition reviews the most interesting news of the week not previously covered, as well as providing exclusive content and insights about the week to come. Other rewards include swag such as mugs, a phone wallet, and a crewneck sweatshirt.
Still, all the referral gimmicks in the world wouldn’t work if Morning Brew didn’t deliver excellent content day in and day out. Readers ultimately pass along the newsletter because they believe it offers concise, entertaining news and financial advice for young adults.
Turbocharge Your Career & Your Money
Knowledge has always been power. In an age when we’re constantly bombarded by news, the ability to sift through the noise to find the information vital for your success is the key to unlocking that power. Here’s what you can gain from reading Morning Brew.
How Morning Brew Boosts Your Career
It pays to be better informed than your colleagues and competitors. When you know more about what’s going on in your industry, you can form better growth strategies, experiment with new marketing tactics, and capitalize on emerging trends that others haven’t heard about yet. And who doesn’t want to be the smartest and best-informed person in the room?
Still, few of us have an hour to spare each morning to read The Wall Street Journal cover to cover. Morning Brew enables you to get a bird’s-eye view of the day’s business and financial news, then drill down into any specific stories relevant to your career.
How Morning Brew Boosts Your Personal Finances
Beyond helping your career, it makes you a better investor to know what trends are driving financial markets. Even long-term investors who avoid timing the market like to know which way the wind is blowing – and who’s holding the fan. This knowledge can help you decide that you’re better off investing more in blue chip stocks this month and less in emerging markets, or vice versa.
If you pick individual stocks, Morning Brew helps you keep a finger on the pulse of which companies are making waves. If you’re a homeowner or real estate investor, news impacting your local housing market can also have a direct effect on you.
Lieberman and Rief describe their ideal reader as a young professional in their 20s who is college-educated and in the business or finance world. They live in a metropolitan coastal city, earn a six-figure salary, and technology is second nature to them. But most of all, their ideal reader is curious and motivated. They’re smart, successful, and want to grow – personally, intellectually, and, of course, financially.
If you’re a busy professional who wants to stay on top of business and financial news, and you only have a few minutes each day to do it, Morning Brew is for you.
And you don’t need to be a millennial to appreciate Morning Brew’s light-hearted tone. Readers of any age appreciate succinct, occasionally humorous news summaries, especially when the alternative is sawdust-dry business stories delivered by yawn-inducing commentators.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s free, either. If you like your money talk brief, broad, and witty, subscribe to Morning Brew here.
How do you consume your financial news? If you read Morning Brew, what are your thoughts on it?
I live in a single room efficiency apartment. The entirety of things that I have available for cooking are a sink, a table, a microwave, and a mini fridge. I simply don’t have the space or capacity to do dishes or prepare meals or anything like that. I can’t even really eat convenience frozen meals because there isn’t room for more than one or two in my mini fridge. What can I do to keep food costs low? It feels like my only option is to eat out all the time.
This can be a real struggle. For a period of time when I was in college, I lived in a similar situation as Jennifer, with almost no tools with which to make food. I also had very little money at that time, so I had to be extremely careful with my food spending. In fact, I used to “splurge” with a hamburger at the Wendy’s near my apartment once a week, and I still remember going in there on early Friday afternoon, as my last class of the week was done at noon on Friday, and enjoying that burger.
Many of the strategies I used then make up this article, along with some other useful tactics I’ve picked up along the way. Here’s my best food advice for Jennifer, and for anyone who is in a situation where traditional cooking at home just does not work no matter the reason.
Remind Yourself Constantly That Eating Out Is Not the Only Option
When you’re in a situation where home food preparation is extremely limited or difficult, it can be easy to sway yourself into thinking that eating at a restaurant is your only option, and once you begin to establish that as a routine, it becomes even harder to break out of that mindset.
For me, the best way to alter this kind of thinking is to simply adopt a schedule in which you only eat at restaurants at certain times and have to figure out how to eat elsewhere at other times. For example, you might decide that you’re going to set a rule for yourself of only eating at a restaurant once a day or, if you’re really going to push things, once every other day. Don’t worry about the details of how you pull this off for now – we’ll get to that.
It really comes down to forcibly breaking routines that you may have established in your life and finding different ways to do things. When it’s not obviously easy how you can eat without just going to a restaurant, restaurant eating becomes the routine. You have to break that routine if you want to start eating with less expense, and the rest of the tips will help you do that.
Eat One or Two Meals a Day Instead of Three
Rather than eating three meals a day, instead aim to eat one or perhaps two meals a day with some occasional small snacks in between them. This isn’t unusual; it’s a pretty standard dietary pattern in many parts of the world.
There are several reasons why this will cut deeply into your food costs, with the biggest one being that it reduces your need to go to a restaurant to roughly once a day (or perhaps even less often, as we’ll see later in this article). If you’re only eating one big meal a day and snacking a bit throughout the rest of the day, you really only need to go to a restaurant for that big meal and the rest can be small items you carry around in your bag for snacking as needed throughout the day.
Using this strategy makes it much easier to downshift to eating at restaurants once per day for your primary meal, which you then supplement with a few snacks throughout the day.
Drink Water, and Lots of It
Water, water, water. It’s healthy, it helps with feeling satiated, it’s essentially free, and it’s easy to get almost anywhere.
Get into a habit of having an empty water bottle with you everywhere. Spend a little bit of money and buy a sturdy reusable water bottle with a tight-fitting cap. Fill it each day before you leave, drink it throughout the day, and fill it frequently as you’re out and about.
If you’re a person who is used to drinking caffeinated and/or sugary beverages, get into the routine of drinking water with every meal and drinking it throughout the day and as long as you don’t adopt a new routine of buying bottled water, you’ll save yourself a ton of money and likely wind up healthier in the long run.
Eat at Buffets
If you’re eating one meal a day, try to eat at a buffet restaurant if possible.
Buffets you to have a large and varied meal for a single fairly low price. You can eat until you’re satiated and have a wide variety of items to choose from. If you’re concerned about overeating, drink a lot of water with your meal. I usually drink a glass of water with every trip to the buffet if I go to one, and that definitely cuts down on the number of trips.
Also, most buffets offer a wide variety of all kinds of foods, allowing you to easily get in an appropriate number of servings of vegetables. Make your first plate simply consist of a large salad and a variety of vegetables to make sure you’re getting a well-balanced diet.
That being said, much of this depends on what buffet options are available in your area. In my area, there are a bunch of different buffet options – there are multiple pizza buffets (most of which have a salad bar and a general “buffet” bar, too), multiple Asian buffets, and a couple of other general buffets as well. All of them are pretty reasonably priced, too.
If Not At a Buffet, Order Large Portions and Use Takeout Containers
If you don’t want to eat at a buffet or don’t have one available to you, there are some things you can do at traditional restaurants to save money.
For starters, never order a beverage besides water. Beverages at restaurants are extremely overpriced. Just avoid them.
When you’re ordering your meal, order a huge entree with the intent of only eating a third or a half of it. The rest should be take with you in a takeout container. When you’re home, stow it in your fridge and stretch it to one or two additional meals.
The reason is that the price gap between a small entree and a large entree at most restaurants is actually pretty small, much less than the difference between a small entree and nothing. For example, at Noodles and Co. (a chain pasta restaurant), most of the “regular” servings are twice the size of the “small” servings (roughly) but cost only a small percentage more. Order the “regular,” eat half of it, and take the other half with you in a container.
Similarly, if you’re at a restaurant where they assemble food to order (like, say, Chipotle), look into tips for that specific restaurant on how to get the maximum value out of your order. For example, I’ve learned that with Chipotle, you get far more food in a burrito bowl than in an actual burrito, enough so that I can usually stretch a burrito bowl into an additional meal of leftovers.
This doesn’t mean that you should order add-ons like appetizers or extra salads or things like that. Those end up being more expensive than they’re worth. Stick to water and a huge entree and you’ll get maximum value from most restaurants.
Now, let’s turn to the food you can actually have and use and prepare in a small apartment without a stove.
Try Lots of Low-Cost Pantry Foods and Lean In on Ones You Like
When I lived in a one-room apartment for a while, I kept a lot of shelf-stable foods in a large plastic tub that served as my “pantry.” It included things that I could easily turn into simple meals with basically no kitchen equipment at all or, in some cases, things I could eat directly.
Things that were usually in that container included a loaf of bread, peanut butter, dried fruits (raisins, dried cranberries, and so on), a lot of dry cereals, fruit and protein bars, ramen noodles (don’t make this a regular thing, but it’s perfectly fine to boil some water in the microwave and have ramen on occasion), beef and turkey jerky (my parents used to make or acquire this and give me a lot of it), and cups of pudding and applesauce.
I didn’t have a whole lot of money at the time, so I would typically buy these things in significant quantity when I found them on sale. The only tools I needed for eating these things were a microwave-safe cup for heating water, a fork, a spoon, and a bowl, all of which were easily washed in the sink.
Another thing I highly recommend keeping in your “pantry box” is pre-made meals that are room temperature safe and able to be microwaved, like canned soups and many of the Trader Joe’s Indian Fare meals. You can find inexpensive and healthy options for these things and all they typically require is a microwave, a bowl, and a spoon or fork.
Eat Oranges, Bananas, and Apples
Oranges, apples, and bananas are perfect foods for the situation Jennifer finds herself in. You can just sit them right on the table in a bowl or even just out loose on the table and they’ll last for at least a week, often more. They can be eaten at room temperature whenever you like. They’re incredibly healthy. Most people like at least some of them. And they’re really cheap, too.
A lot of other fruits have a more … specialized taste or have a higher cost or don’t last as long on the tabletop. For example, I used to eat a lot of grapefruits because they could sit out on the table for a while, but not everyone is a big fan of grapefruits.
The point is that it’s pretty easy and pretty cheap to get fruits into your diet. Just buy some fruit that can last on the tabletop for days and eat them at your convenience.
(Plus, orange peel can make your apartment smell wonderful. Trust me.)
Eat Whole Rotisserie Chickens
One of the best bargains in food, in my opinion, is the whole rotisserie chicken, which many grocery stores sell. They’re whole chickens, already fully cooked and seasoned, at a really nice price.
Just buy a whole chicken, take it home, and take it apart as you eat it. It’ll most likely fit in a mini-fridge – if not, break it down further and put the pieces into smaller containers that will fit.
A single rotisserie chicken costs between $5 and $10 and can provide food for several meals for a single person. Not only that, you can use the meat in a lot of ways. For example, take a few spoonfuls of the rotisserie meat and throw it into a container of chicken ramen, or add it to some soup that you’ve made.
Learn to Make Simple “No Cook” Items That Don’t Require a Lot of Refrigerator Space or an Oven
There are a lot of very simple and tasty things you can make that don’t really require much more than a bowl, a cup, a microwave, and a fridge to make and only require room-temperature items. Learn how to make some of them.
One of my favorite things to make in this regard is “overnight oats.” Just put 1/2 cup rolled oats in a large cup, add an equal amount of liquid (preferably milk or almond milk), and then add a bit of sweetener of your choice, whether it’s a bit of honey or some pieces of dried fruit or whatever. Put this in the fridge overnight and you have a killer filling breakfast in the morning.
Another thing I used to make (and still do, on occasion) that really only requires a coffee cup, a microwave, and a fridge is the “coffee cup scramble.” Just spray the insides of a coffee cup with nonstick spray, crack two eggs in there, add just a little bit of milk and salt and pepper, beat it with a fork until it’s consistent, and then cook it in the microwave at 45 second intervals on high until it’s done. If you want, add a bit of shredded cheese on top. It costs about $0.50 and is easy to make with just what you have.
Learn to Make “Dump Meals” in a Crock Pot
This is my final tip, and it’s a big one. Even in Jennifer’s situation, there are still a bunch of meals that can easily be made in a crock pot, with leftovers easily stored in a mini-fridge for later meals throughout the week.
“Dump meals” are meals where you simply put a list of ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, and leave it on all day. At the end of the day, you have a ready-to-eat meal with plenty of leftovers if you’re a single person. That’s it.
If you have a handful of containers for leftovers – Rubbermaid makes really nice and nearly infinitely reusable containers for individual meals, like these, for example – you can just serve up a meal from your slow cooker right onto a bowl or a plate, then put the rest into a few meal-sized containers and pop them straight in the fridge. Eat them as they’re convenient. Clean up the slow cooker in your sink – it’s pretty easy to do – and move on with life.
For example, you can really easily make a “dump” beef stew. Just spray the crock of the slow cooker with cooking spray, then put the following in there: 2 pounds of beef stew meat (you can buy this pre-chopped at the grocery store), 1 packet of beef stew seasoning mix (found in the spice aisle at the grocery store), 1 bag frozen mixed vegetables, 1 pound baby potatoes, 1/2 pound baby carrots, 2 tablespoons dried onion powder, and 1 32 ounce container of beef stock. Turn the slow cooker on low and stir it around a bit. Then go about your day. 8 to 12 hours later, add a quarter of a cup of flour to the stew and stir it thoroughly, then serve yourself a bowl and put the rest in meal-sized containers in your mini fridge. Depending on your appetite, you’ll have four or five meals from this stew.
Like that one? Here are 56 more dump dinners for the slow cooker. Almost all of them consist of just dumping in a list of ingredients in the morning, turning it on low, going about your day, and coming home to a hot meal and a bunch of leftovers, no oven or anything required and only one pot to clean up easily in your sink.
If you’re in a situation like Jennifer is, where you have limited options for preparing food, you really have two main goals. One is to minimize how often you actually go into a restaurant by figuring out what you actually can prepare with your limited tools and space. The other is to get maximum value out of every restaurant visit when you do go by eliminating drink costs, utilizing leftover boxes, and taking advantage of buffets.
All of the strategies listed above center around these two core elements. Minimize restaurant visits (while recognizing that you’ll likely still go fairly frequently) and maximize value from those visits. It all boils down to that.
The thing is, once you feel comfortable preparing food with such minimal equipment, when the time comes later in life when you have a full kitchen available to you, preparing food won’t really seem very intimidating. Plus, you won’t have established a routine where the only source of food in your life is a restaurant. It will be very easy to move to a state where you prepare almost everything at home because it really is cheaper and more convenient.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go put some rolled oats to soak in the fridge for breakfast in the morning.
“Who are you?” my cousin Duane asked me on Saturday afternoon. We’d spent the day playing nerd games together and were taking a break for pizza.
“What?” I said. I wasn’t expecting a philosophical question over supper.
“I don’t think you know who you are,” Duane said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t think you know who you are,” he repeated. “You write about money and frugality, yet you spend $200 on dinner.” Duane was referring to the fancy meal we’d had in May at a Michelin-star restaurant in France. I knew it had been bugging him, but he hadn’t said anything about it until now. (And that meal cost $267.41 for the two of us, not $200.)
“You paid $1900 for your used pickup, but you don’t wash it. It’s filthy. You buy new clothes that you don’t need, but you leave your old clothes on the floor so that your cats pee on them.” It’s true. Kim and I have a cat that will, from time to time, pee on my clothes.
“You say you don’t like attention, that you don’t want to be a celebrity, yet you’re always taking on new work that puts you in the spotlight. You’re thinking of doing a course for Audible, for instance, and you’re talking about doing more speaking gigs — even though you hate speaking gigs,” Duane said.
All of these things were true. I couldn’t argue.
“Who are you?” Duane asked. Well, that’s a mighty fine question, Duane. That’s a mighty fine question.
In 1862, French novelist Victor Hugo published Les Miserables, one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Long and sprawling and full of digressions (just like Get Rich Slowly!), the book explores the many facets of human nature: the good and bad, the humorous and poignant, the ordinary and sublime.
Les Miserables wasn’t popular with critics when it was released, but everybody else loved it. It sold well when it was published and continues to sell well more than 150 years later. The book has inspired several several film and television adaptations. And, of course, it’s the source of one of the most successful stage musicals of all time.
Turns out PBS recently aired a new six-part Les Miserables miniseries written by the always-awesome Andrew Davies. It’s on my watch list.
Although Les Miserables contains a ginormous cast of characters, two stand at the heart of the story:
Jean Valjean is the novel’s protagonist. Arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven starving children, he spends nineteen years in prison (five for the original crime, fourteen more for various misdeeds). Upon parole, he assumes the identity of Monsieur Madeleine. As Madeleine, he builds two factories, becomes rich, and is appointed mayor of a small seaside town. Valjean is a good man who occasionally finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
Javert is the novel’s antagonist. (It’s not right to call him a villain. Nothing about him is villanous.) Born in prison to deplorable parents, he grows up to become a prison guard — then police inspector. Javert is obsessed with upholding the law, which includes pursuing and punishing Valjean for his past misdeeds. His worldview is shattered when he realizes that not all laws are moral, that sometimes the moral course is not the lawful one.
What’s fascinating — mind-blowing, actually — is that Victor Hugo based both Valjean and Javert on the exact same real-life person. They’re both loosely modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, a French criminal turned criminalist. (You should open that link in a separate tab for later reading. Vidocq’s life is fascinating. Among other things, he’s regarded as the first-ever private detective and the “father” of modern criminology.)
That’s right: Both the protagonist and the antagonist of Les Miserables were inspired by the same man. And, even more mind-blowing? Vidocq was also the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. (Go read that article!)
Who Am I?
The amazing thing (to me) is that Jean Valjean himself is two people! He is Jean Valjean, yes, but he spends years posing as Monsieur Madeleine. As the latter, he’s a wealthy factory owner, he’s mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He is a force for good in his small world. He is, at once, both Valjean and Madeleine, just as Vidocq is at once both Valjean and Javert.
In a 2012 New Yorker piece praising “the persistent greatness” of Les Miserables, Adam Gopnik wrote, “Hugo believed in, relished, luxuriated in, contradiction — he thought that we show ourselves most truly when we are seemingly most opposed to our double natures.”
When I posted about this on Facebook in April, John from ESI Money observed that this adds a whole new meaning to the song “Who Am I?” from the musical.
“Who am I?” Valjean sings as he’s forced to reveal his identity in order to save an innocent man. “Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!”
Yes, that’s true — but Jean Valjean is also police inspector Javert.
True story: I’m a devoted fan of musical theater, and “Who Am I?” is one of my favorite songs from any show. It induces frisson — it gives me goosebumps — every time I hear it. Every time.
What I like about this clever bit of character creation from Victor Hugo is how it highlights our inherent dual natures. We, as humans, are inconsistent. We are complex creatures. At the same time, we can be both good and bad. I truly believe that most of us do what is right most of the time — but each of us also sometimes makes poor choices. We do things that seem to go against who we say we are and what we believe.
In Valjean and Javert, we get to see human nature dramatized in two men forever at odds, just as we are each forever at odds with ourselves.
Me, Myself, and I
As I was walking the dog this morning, I found myself meditating on my own personal duality. I am at once the hardest working person I know…and the laziest. I am the smartest person I know…and the stupidest. I am the kindest person I know…and the meanest.
Recently, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with my seeming inability to “do the right thing”. I know that there are certain actions I could take (and should take) to improve my health, to build this website, to maintain relationships with my friends. Yet I do not do these things. I actively avoid them.
Why is this?
Here’s an example. I could solve a whole host of problems if I were to get regular aerobic exercise. Over the past year, I’ve done a fine job of strength training, but for some reason I’ve become allergic to sweat. I do whatever I can to avoid running or biking or otherwise increasing my heart rate.
It’s not that I can’t do these things. I know I can. And I like them. I’ve run half marathons (and walked a full marathon). I’ve completed a century ride — one-hundred miserable miles on a hot and windy summer day. I did Crossfit for five years. I’m capable of strenuous exercise, and I know it.
But I’m not doing that exercise right now. I’m avoiding it.
Three months ago, as the sun started to show its face here in Portland, I wheeled my bicycle from the bottom of the hill to the back office. I wanted to make it easy to hop in the saddle and go. But you know what? I’ve ridden the thing exactly once this year. The bike is just sitting there, pleading with me to ride it.
The same goes with the website. You all know that I can crank out an article a day. I did it for three years between 2006 and 2009. I did it for the first three months of 2018. When I put my mind to it, I can write well without sacrificing quality.
Yet, for some reason, it’s tough for me to publish even once a week lately. My mind is elsewhere. I have no inspiration. This wouldn’t be so bad if I were at least handling other site maintenance chores, but I’m not. The site redesign is nearly finished, but it isn’t live because there are still things I need to do. I’m not processing guest articles. I’m not posting to social media.
I’ve no doubt that some of this malaise stems from my chronic depression. But I also know the best way to shake the self-loathing is to actually do something, you know?
Which leads me to fundamental question I find myself facing: If I know what is right, why don’t I do it?
I have no answer.
This year, as every year, my depression and anxiety became especially strong during the spring. What’s different about this year is that I sought out a therapist.
A few weeks ago, she asked me about my writing. We hadn’t talked about it before. “What does success look like for you when it comes to your work?” she asked.
“Success means publishing three articles per week,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because then I’m giving my readers lots of material. I’m helping them. When I give them a lot of material, they want to come back more often. When I publish more material, more people find the site by search. When I publish more material, I make more money.”
“So, you want to publish three times per week?”
“I guess so,” I said. I thought about it a little. “But I hate the pressure that pace puts on me.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I don’t enjoy it. I don’t do great work under time pressure like that. I want to take my time. If I decide to write an article on, say, the history of retirement, then I want to read a book on the subject. Maybe two or three. I want to think deeply about it. Then, I want to take the time to write the best article out there about the history of retirement.”
“You realize you’ve just told me two very different things, right?” my therapist said. “You’ve set up contradictory goals for yourself. Plus, you’re asking yourself to be the best. That’s a tall order. No wonder you’re stressed. You have impossible expectations for yourself.”
When I think about it, my therapist is right. I do have impossible expectations for myself — on a lot of things. I have contradictory goals. It’s as if there’s a Jean Valjean inside of me and an Inspector Javert. And they want different things. Neither is wrong — but they can’t both have their way.
But to which do I yield? Am I Valjean or Javert?
At the end of the session, I lamented my dual nature. “I tell other people to be proactive,” I said, “to take charge of their own lives, but I have a hard time doing that myself.”
“Do you think that makes you a hypocrite?” my therapist asked.
“No,” I said without hesitation.
“Good,” she said.
“I think it makes me human,” I said. “I write about the things I struggle with personally. When I started writing about money and getting out of debt, that’s because I needed to get out of debt. Now, when I write about tracking spending or having a sense of purpose, that’s because I need these things.”
So, this is all very interesting on a philosophical level, but what does it have to do with personal finance? Lots, actually.
We make our purchasing decisions based on who we are and who we want to be. If we’re not clear on who we are and who we want to be, our choices tend to be arbitrary. They’re spontaneous and not based on anything other than immediate desire.
When you’re clear on who you are and what you want, it’s much easier to practice mindful spending, to be deliberate about the things you buy and own. If you identify as fitness-conscious, for instance, you’ll be much less likely to be tempted by cookies and snacks in the grocery store. If, like me at the moment, you identify as a “lapsed” fitness junkie, well then it’s much easier to succumb to temptation.
Who we want to be also affects how we spend. In fact, I suspect that much wasted spending — not just for me, but for everybody — is what I’d call “aspirational”. It’s not based on our actual habits and actions but on what we wish we did.
Take my bike, for example. I bought it last year but have ridden it only three times in fifteen months. Like I mentioned earlier, it simply sits there, pleading with me to ride it.
I have a good friend who once decided he’d like to learn woodworking. His father had always built and repaired things around the house, and my friend aspired to do the same — even though he had never done so in 35 years of life. He bought a stack of woodworking books, then acquired several expensive tools. He never used them. These were aspirational purchases, based on somebody he wanted to be, not the person he was.
From what I’ve seen, a lot of folks do this sort of thing with cookbooks. They want to try new recipes and new cuisines, so they gradually fill a shelf with cooking manuals — cooking manuals that they seldom use.
It’s because of this relationship between money and identity that I’m so insistent that GRS readers write a personal mission statement. When you’re clear on your purpose, it’s much easier to make sure your spending is aligned with your values, that your financial decisions are based on who you are instead of some idealized version of who you want to be.
In their fascinating (if dry and academic) book Identity Economics, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton explore how our identities shape our work, wages, and well-being.
“In every social context,” the authors write, “people have a notion of who they are, which is associated with beliefs about how they and others are supposed to behave. These notions…play important roles in how economies work.” Our identities determine how we earn a living and how we spend our money.
Akerloff and Kranton say that large portions of our identities are shaped by the environment:
Identity, norms, and social categories may appear to be abstract concepts, but their reality is both powerful and easy to see. Norms are particularly clear when people hold an ideal of who they should be and how they should act.
Here’s an example: Many folks who discover the early retirement movement do so through the awesome work of Mr. Money Mustache. He has a strong voice and a popular website. Over the past few years, he’s accumulated a passionate army of followers who call themselves Mustachians.
When a person identifies himself as Mustachian, he subscribes to a certain set of values, to particular ways of working with money. Driving is frowned upon. A high saving rate is encouraged. Thrift is a prized virtue. This is identity economics in action.
Akerloff and Kranton are careful to note that our personal identities are not static. They change. Our larger identities change slowly over time, but we can also shift roles rapidly in daily life.
The latter is easiest to see. “Over the course of a day,” they write, “a woman may see herself as a mother at home and a professional at work.” I’d add that she might see herself as an athlete in her running group, a civic leader as a member of the city council, and a Mustachian when she’s hanging with her financial friends online.
Each of these is a different identity — or perhaps a different facet of her overall identity. And each affects how she works, saves, and spends.
People change over their lifetimes too. From the book:
People often make decisions that come back to haunt them. We overeat, we smoke, we spend too much, and we regret it. [This is due to] time inconsistency. People have different selves at different points in their lives. The new self could regret the decisions made by the old self…
Sometimes these transitions are anticipated, and people plan accordingly. But often, people only imperfectly anticipate who they will later become.
Look at my own life over the past decade. Who I am today is drastically different than who I was ten years ago. And twenty years ago. Sure, the core J.D. remains the same — once a nerd, always a nerd! — but my values, which are constantly evolving, have morphed and my day-to-day life is sometimes unrecognizable.
During the past ten years, much about my personal identity (and my resulting financial choices) has changed:
I deliberately chose to purchase a small home in “the country”.
I drink beer. I drink coffee. I ride a motorcycle. All of these actions are new.
I lost fifty pounds through years of exercise and healthy eating. Then I gained back forty of those pounds through years of neglect.
I sold Get Rich Slowly — then I bought it back.
These changes, large and small, all affect how I manage my money and how I spend my time. As my identity changes, so do my financial habits.
Related reading: In a strange coincidence, The Guardian published an article on a similar subject last Saturday: “Are you really the ‘real’ you?” This piece, which is terrific and well worth reading, looks at how some people change their lives entirely — and why.
Order and Light
At the end of the Les Miserables, after Jean Valjean frees Javert instead of killing him, the police inspector faces an existential crisis. Victor Hugo writes:
He saw before him two roads, both equally straight; but he saw two; and that terrified him — him, who who had never in his life known but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one? His condition was inexpressible.
Inspector Javert’s moral certitude proves to be his undoing. Like many folks who are certain they know what is real and what is right, Javert spends years ignoring evidence that controverts his beliefs. He thinks he knows the truth but in reality is blind to it.
When, at last, Javert recognizes that he’s been in error all this time, that things are not as black and white as he believed them to be, it’s too much for him to bear. Rather than face a world filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, he takes his own life. He jumps in the river and drowns.
Before he kills himself, though, Javert has a sort of revelation. He realizes that Jean Valjean and his alter-ego, Monsieur Madeleine, may have seemed like two different people, but they were one all along. They were two sides of the same person. Valjean was both criminal and hero.
It’s all well and good to want to be a fixed, constant person, to have an identity that never changes. But that’s not how healthy people work. Healthy people learn and adapt and grow. Who you are today is not the same as who you’ll be tomorrow — or who you were yesterday.
As you change, your values will change too. Your goals will change. Your spending will change. What you want to do for work will change. And, yes, there will be many times when you are internally conflicted, when like Javert you are faced with two parallel roads, both of which are “true”.
Who am I? That’s a great question.
I’m a guy who writes about money and frugality, but I’m also a man who is willing to — once in a lifetime — spend $267.41 to experience a Michelin-star restaurant in rural France. That’s a clear example of mindful spending: I planned the meal weeks in advance and looked forward to it with great anticipation.
I’m a guy who can’t bring himself to purchase a new car, so I buy a 25-year-old pickup for $1900. And I don’t wash it. I value the vehicle but see no sense in spending the time, money, and energy to clean something that will never look pretty.
I’m a guy who buys new clothes from time to time — don’t we all? — but who, yes, is careless enough to leave them on the bedroom floor even though I know my cat likes to pee on them. (Stupid cat!)
I’m a guy who hates public speaking and who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, yet who has a deep desire to teach people about personal finance. (Especially the personal side of it all.) This leads me to do things that seem incongruent with what I say I want. I take on months-long projects that stress me out. I agree to fly across the world to talk to people. (Just yesterday, Paula Pant and I had a conversation about how the hassle of attending events is worth it for the friends we make.)
Who am I? I’m J.D. Roth.
Author: J.D. Roth
In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he’s managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.
Welcome to “Social Security Q&A.” You ask a Social Security question, our expert provides the answer.
You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you’d like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here. Check it out: It doesn’t cost much and could result in receiving thousands of dollars more in benefits over your lifetime.
This week’s question comes from M:
“Am I able to claim my ex-spouse’s Social Security even though he hasn’t filed? There’s a year difference in our ages. He’s younger.”
M, this is a great question, because the divorce rate is rising sharply among the 50-and-over population. So, many people may find themselves wondering the same thing.
The short answer is, yes, you can claim ex-spousal benefits even though your ex-spouse has not claimed his own benefits, provided that he is at least 62.
In fact, ex-spouses actually receive favorable treatment from the Social Security Administration relative to spouses. If you were still married, you could not claim spousal benefits until your husband actually started his own benefits.
Your ex-spousal benefit at your full retirement age will equal one-half your husband’s retirement benefit at his full retirement age. Your ex-spousal benefit is reduced if you have your own retirement benefit, or if you claim early, before your full retirement age.
M, you mentioned that your ex is a year younger than you. That fact has no bearing on your eligibility for spousal benefits as long as he is at least 62.
There are some additional requirements that might affect you.
First, you must have been married for at least 10 years.
Second, you cannot currently be married. If you ever remarried, but are not currently married, you could receive ex-spousal benefits from either ex-spouse (but not both), provided you meet the 10-year rule for both.
Third, if you have your own benefits, any ex-spousal benefits will be coordinated with your own benefits. M, for you to receive any ex-spousal benefits, your own benefits at your full retirement age must be less than one-half your ex-husband’s benefit at his full retirement age. This rule applies even if you claim prior to your full retirement age.
There is one exception to this rule. It arises if you were born prior to 1954 and you have reached your full retirement age. In that case, you can claim ex-spousal benefits without claiming your own benefits at the same time, meaning that the “less than one-half” rule stated above does not apply to you, until you apply for your own benefits.
If you were born prior to 1954, you can defer claiming your own benefits, allowing them to grow up to age 70. However, if you were born in 1954 or later, you must claim both benefits simultaneously.
A final point: If you claim ex-spousal benefits, your ex-husband’s benefits are unaffected. In fact, he does not even need to know that you have claimed benefits on his record. Likewise, if he has remarried and his current wife qualifies for spousal benefits, her benefits are unaffected by your claim on his record.
If you want to dive more deeply into this issue, you should take a look at this page on the SSA website.
Hope that answers your question, M!
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The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. So, it’s better not to ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you.
I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.
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Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.
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The popular Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer, an excellent cash-back credit card, will soon allow its rewards to be transferred to Citi’s ThankYou points rewards program, according to messages starting to appear in customer accounts.
Citi officials would not provide details on the new option, but the account message reads: “Coming in the Fall 2019 your Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer will allow you to convert your cash rewards to ThankYou Points which can be redeemed for gift cards, travel, purchases at select retailers, and more.”
Key missing information so far is the transfer ratio — what are cash-back rewards worth after you convert them into ThankYou points?
» MORE: Citi ThankYou points: How to earn and use them
Is converting to ThankYou points a good deal?
The short answer: We don’t know yet, until Citi reveals the transfer rate and other details.
An example of the message cardholders are receiving from Citi.
NerdWallet values ThankYou points at an average of 1 cent each, depending on what you redeem them for. Redemption options include travel, gift cards and more. But cash is a more flexible currency than any reward points, including ThankYou points, because you can spend it on anything — so a key to converting this card’s cash rewards into ThankYou points would be to get back more than the cash value.
The $0-annual-fee Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer has the potential to provide that outsize value if the conversion rate is favorable. If it’s a 1:1 ratio, for instance, that would mean you essentially earn 2 ThankYou points per dollar spent — just as the card now earns 2% cash back per dollar spent: 1% when you make a purchase, and another 1% back when you pay it off.
In that scenario — depending on which other Citi cards you have and where you’re likely to travel — you might get good value from using Citi’s travel-booking site or transferring points to its multiple airline partners. Keep in mind, though, that JetBlue is Citi’s only domestic partner. And again, Citi has not disclosed the transfer ratio.
And this also assumes that cardholders of the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer will even have access to the travel-booking site to use ThankYou Points — or whether they will also need one of Citi’s more premium travel cards, such as the Citi Premier℠ Card, with an annual fee of $95. That card, too, provides another possible wrinkle because with it, ThankYou points are worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed for airfare via the Citi ThankYou Travel Center. So if you’re allowed to combine ThankYou points from multiple Citi cards, this could be a valuable option.
Notable to travelers, however: Citi just axed a number of travel benefits and protections from its credit cards. And the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer charges a foreign transaction fee of 3%.
Regardless of this new transfer option, the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer is a perennial NerdWallet top pick among cash-back credit cards for its high rate and its simplicity. Of course, choosing to strategically transfer rewards to ThankYou points would add a layer of complexity.
Did you set goals for 2019? Here’s an update on how I did on my 2019 goals in June.
It’s July 6, 2019. And it’s time to check in on our goals! How are you doing on the goals you set for 2019?
I spent some time today reviewing June and reflecting on the blessings of the past month and the lessons I learned. I also looked at my goals and how I was doing in each area. (If you missed My Goals for 2019 post, read it here.)
In order to keep myself accountable (and because I know some of you really enjoy these posts) I’m sharing a goals update post at the beginning of each month. I hope that this will not only motivate me to be focused and intentional this year, but I hope it might also inspire you in the goals you set for 2019.
So here’s my goals update for June 2019:
1. Read 40 books I already own. (I’m using GoodReads to track my reading this year!)
Update: I finished 6 books in June — and one of them was from my list of books I already own and wanted to read this year. Look for a Book Update in the next week!
2. Slowly read through the New Testament using the She Reads Truth Bible reading plans at the beginning of each chapter.
Update: I finished Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians in June.
3. Listen to 2 audiobooks per month. (I use the Libby app to get these for free.)
Update: I finished to 2 audiobooks in June.
4. Complete all of the Organize in 5 Diary tasks to get our home more organized and set up better organizational systems. (Psst! Did you get yours? It’s just $9 right now.)
Update: I have been keeping up with this. (You can see two posts I did on some of my organizing projects in January and February: Cleaning Out the Cookbooks & Organizing My Purse & Bathroom.)
5. Stay offline for 4 hours per day, 5 days per week. (I share more about why I chose this goal here.)
Update: I did a pretty good job of this in June.
6. Leave my phone in the basement every night. (I talk more about what inspired me to make this goal here.)
Update: So, honesty here: Ever since I took email off my phone at the beginning of May, I haven’t really felt such a need to not have my phone by my bed and I’ve sort of slipped out of this habit. But I want to get back to it!
7. Go to bed before 10:30 p.m. 5 days per week. (I’m using this little spreadsheet I made to track most of my personal goals)
Update: I bombed this goal in June. But we traveled a lot and were in different time zones + it’s summer, so I’m not beating myself up over it. But I do want to get back to this in July!
8. Go on an overnight trip with Jesse without the kids.
Update: We went on an incredibly fun trip to Destin, FL! Jesse and I drove by ourselves to FL and then we met up with two other couples there. We stayed in an AirBNB and split the cost three ways. Since it was off season, it made for a very inexpensive trip and we had the BEST time!
9. One-on-one time with each child at least 3 times per week. (I am planning to dedicate 40 minutes per child after dinner each evening at least three nights per week to hang out and spend time with each child individually.)
Update: I spent a lot of time with the kids in June because of all of our traveling, but I didn’t spend as much one-on-one time with them. It was a lot of all together family time. I’m looking forward to getting back to this in July.
10. Take the kids to at least two continents and 4 states we haven’t traveled to. (We’re hoping to travel to Europe in the summer and South America at some other point during the year.)
Update: We went to Iceland (Europe) in June and Utah to meet up with all of my extended family at the very end of June. I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to cross another continent off our list this year… I’m still hoping to find a really good deal on flights/travel, but we’ll see.
11. Pay cash to redo our room and renovate our bathroom (we have to pull out the shower and put in a new one because it was installed incorrectly and is leaking and ruining the floor/wall and we want to do a few renovations while we’re at it + we want to finally decorate our room — we left it really bare when we moved in and decided to wait to prioritize it in the budget).
Update: We started on the bathroom renovation at the very end of June.
12. Pay cash to paint the walls in the main floor of our home.
13. Fully fund our Emergency Fund.
Update: This is DONE! YAY!
14. Redo/set up a much more intentional customer acquisition experience for all three of our email newsletters.
Update: We’ve been hard at work behind the scenes working on this and made some BIG progress in June.
15. Finish launching the rest of our beginner Your Blogging University courses. (If you want to start a blog, be sure to check out my other site, Your Blogging Mentor.)
Update: I’m working on my next course, Monetize Your Blog, and it’s going to be a bigger/more comprehensive course than I’ve ever done but I’m continuing to make good progress.
16. Launch a Blog Coaching/Accountability Group membership. (I’ll be opening this up to a very limited number of people in January of 2019. Stay tuned!)
Update: We opened this up to new members in April and I’m just loving leading this! Interested in being the first to find out when we open up to new members again? Be sure to join the waitlist!
How are YOU doing on your goals for 2019? I’d love to hear about your successes and struggles. Tell us in the comments!
Using an Oculus Rift headset to experience a day-in-the-life of an aerospace engineer at the International Space Station. Testing a cross-stitching technique on an industrial-sized sewing machine. Designing a blueprint of a panini-slinging food truck.
Projects like these and more are likely happening in your community, right now, in free-to-use workshops built to cultivate creativity, invention and even spark entrepreneurship.
Ever wanted to try your hand at selling crafts online but didn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars in overhead costs? There’s a solution for that.
Makerspaces, they’re called. And hundreds of them are popping up around the nation.
What Is a Makerspace?
A makerspace is a community workshop space where you can make things. Hand-crafted things. Digital things. 3D-printed things — it’s really up to you and the equipment your local makerspaces have to offer.
“That movement has been around for a long time,” says Bob Anstett, the coordinator of digital initiatives of Broward County, Florida’s library system. “Used to be that you were called a knitter or a carpenter or a woodworker. Now, you’re a maker.”
Besides the fancy new terminology, public access to such expensive equipment on this scale is also a novel idea. But the concept is simple: Walk into a local makerspace, which could have high-tech gadgets, computers with audio and video editing software or machinery like table saws and sanders.
You can use the equipment on your own time — typically with some guidance from trained staff — or join a group workshop to learn alongside your neighbors.
In this sense, makerspaces provide a crucial method to test the waters of a moneymaking project. If you’re interested in woodworking, for example, you can use makerspace equipment to craft your first coffee table, without having to buy an $800 table saw.
The origins of makerspaces as community-focused workshops are a little murky. Modern iterations of this idea sprouted in 1990s Germany. Early versions focused on sharing and building computer software or hardware and were dubbed hackerspaces.
In the early 2000s, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms created the concept of FabLabs (fabulation laboratories), workshops aimed at bringing high-tech equipment to underserved communities.
Both of these concepts are thought of as branches of the broader term makerspaces. And while they have existed for decades, the movement ballooned in popularity with a 2014 Obama Administration initiative that shone the spotlight on the maker movement.
Since then, FabLabs, hackerspaces and makerspaces have been popping up in colleges, schools, libraries and rec centers in a push to make them more widely available to the public.
Here are a few ways to find them:
The Role of Libraries and Community Colleges in Makerspaces
Public libraries across the nation are undergoing a radical transformation, and they’re changing faster than public perception. They’re no longer just places of dusty tomes and Dewey Decimal. Need a lawn mower? Check it out at the library. A 360-degree video camera? Library. Fishing pole? Library.
“Maybe you want to make a cow-shaped cake. You don’t have to buy that cake pan,” Anstett says. “You can check it out from a library.”
Thanks to expanded intra-library loans, most public libraries offer a host of unexpected things — from yard tools to electronics to musical instruments. If your local library doesn’t have a specific item, they can request it from a library that specializes in that type of tool.
For example, Broward County’s Creation Station features cutting-edge technology, but the Kansas City, Missouri, library system has robust baking equipment. Through these loans, almost every library can pool their resources. That way Broward isn’t limited to only tech, and Kansas City isn’t limited to only baking.
Used to be that you were called a knitter or a carpenter or a woodworker. Now, you’re a maker.
Libraries are also transforming into hubs for hands-on learning. They’re furthering the maker movement by providing the public on-site opportunities to tinker with tech, to hone new skills, and in some cases, to launch new businesses.
Libraries, in other words, are the perfect hosts for makerspaces.
“We’ve always done that sort of thing,” Anstett says. “What’s expanded now is that we’ve made more well-defined spaces.”
Community colleges are also major players in providing the public with free access to makerspaces. They have the benefit of robust career programs and have relationships with local employers. Much like the mission of community colleges to help more people achieve higher education, their makerspaces broaden access to innovations, technology and ideas.
“I want it to be equitable and want everyone to have access to this stuff,” says assistant professor Chad Mairn, who manages the Innovation Lab at St. Petersburg College in Florida. “There’s so much that we get to do because we do have a college connected to us.”
Most public makerspaces and FabLabs are free. But, as Anstett and Mairn both note, they have some downsides: strict operating hours, membership or residency policies and spatial limitations.
That’s where private makerspaces come in.
These makerspaces often specialize in equipment the public versions may not have, offer 24-7 access or are located in more convenient areas. But that convenience comes at a cost: Private makerspaces typically have monthly or annual membership fees, which vary by location.
Each makerspace, Anstett says, “has a distinction, for the most part, because it’s tailored to your community.”
How Makerspaces Help Develop New Skills — and Jobs
Think of makerspaces as testing grounds for locals to hone new skills. These new skills can then be applied to a side gig or a start-up business.
“My mission and my main goal is to show people what is actually possible,” Mairn says.
“Then they see what’s possible and want to take that to the next level, and they got my space to experiment and to try things out.”
Maybe you’re interested in launching a hand-made Etsy store but don’t know where to start.
“If you’ve knitted all your life,” Anstett says, “you can come in and take a basic class at Creation Station and use our sewing machines.”
Mairn says that sewing is quite popular at Innovation Lab, too. And since his makerspace is connected to a college, there are programs in place that help locals land jobs or get their passion projects off the ground.
“If you have a good business idea,” Mairn says, “let’s help you with the research, let’s talk to a patent attorney, let’s take it to that next level.”
Pair that with the additional free business classes, career fairs and other perks from local libraries and community colleges, and makerspaces can transform your idea from “I like to sew. Maybe I can style some clothing” to launching a small business.
“And you’ve done it all for free,” Anstett adds.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.
Advertiser Disclosure: This post includes references to offers from our partners. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. However, the opinions expressed here are ours alone and at no time has the editorial content been provided, reviewed, or approved by any issuer.
Gas is one of the most popular credit card rewards categories. That’s no surprise, as most Americans rely on gas-powered cars to get around and are always searching for ways to save money on gas. Many general-purpose cash back credit cards include gas or gas station purchases as a regular rotating category, while others feature permanent cash back on gas buys.
When deciding which card best fits your needs, pay special attention to any spending caps, brand restrictions, and time limits that could eat into your earning power. Read each card’s fine print to get the lowdown on any exclusions or restrictions. For instance, most general gas credit cards that offer cash back at “all U.S. gas stations” specifically exclude warehouse clubs like Sam’s Club and Costco, which sell discounted gas and have their own cash back rewards programs. And pay special attention to interest rates, which can sometimes be higher than those of non-rewards credit cards.
Caveats aside, these are the best gas and gas station credit cards available today.
Best Gas Credit Cards
1. Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
3% Unlimited Cash Back at U.S. Gas Stations; 6% Cash Back at Supermarkets and on Select Digital Media Services
The Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express has one of the best gas rewards programs around: 3% unlimited cash back on purchases at all U.S. gas stations, with no spending caps or other restrictions. You also earn 6% cash back on supermarket purchases up to $6,000 per year and unlimited 6% cash back on select digital media services, including Netflix and HBO. Plus, you get 1% cash back on all non-gas and non-supermarket purchases, with no limits. However, there’s a $95 annual fee.
Other benefits include a nice welcome offer and generous intro APR period. You can redeem your cash back rewards as a statement credit, gift card, and general merchandise, starting at $25.
Welcome Offer: Earn $200 cash (statement credit) when you spend at least $1,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.
Key Fees: There’s a $95 annual fee. Foreign transactions run 2.7%.
Introductory APR: There is a 0% purchase and balance transfer APR for 12 months. After that, regular variable APR applies.
Other Perks: Card membership has a host of fringe benefits, including access to cardholder-only entertainment events and return protection, which compensates you up to $300 per item for attempted returns rejected by merchants.
See our American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card Review for more information. Find out how you can apply for this card here.
2. Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
4% Cash Back on Gas Purchases
The Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi has a generous gas benefit: 4% cash back on the first $7,000 in gas purchases each year. This rate applies on gas purchased at all U.S. gas stations, not just Costco filling hubs. Above the $7,000 spending threshold, gas purchases earn unlimited 1% cash back. Eligible restaurant and travel purchases earn unlimited 3% cash back worldwide, and Costco purchases earn unlimited 2% cash back in-store and online. All other purchases earn unlimited 1% cash back.
If this card has a drawback, it’s the de facto $60 annual fee for regular cardholders. Like all warehouse stores, Costco charges an annual membership fee, and you won’t qualify for this card without agreeing to pay it. That said, Costco membership promises deep savings for frequent shoppers, so this is one credit card annual fee that pays for itself without much trouble. A foreign transaction fee waiver sweetens the pot further.
Sign-up Bonus: This card has no sign-up bonus.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee with a paid-up Costco membership, which costs $60 for a standard (Gold Star) membership and $120 for a premium (Executive) membership, plus applicable sales tax (if any). There is no foreign transaction fee. Balance transfers cost the greater of $5 or 3% of the transferred amount, and cash advances cost the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: There is no 0% APR introductory promotion.
Other Perks: Other fringe benefits include complimentary rental car loss and damage coverage and extended warranties on select purchases with existing manufacturers’ warranties.
See our Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi Review for more details. If you’re interested in the nearly identical business version of this card, check out our Costco Anywhere Visa® Business Card by Citi Review. Find out how you can apply for this card here.
3. Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
Unlimited 3X Points on U.S. Gas Station Purchases; Excellent Sign-up Bonus
The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card earns unlimited 3X points (effectively, 3% cash back) on purchases in a slew of spending categories, including restaurants, transit operators, airlines, and digital streaming services. But the category that matters for our purposes is U.S. gas stations. With no limits on its 3% gas subsidy and no rotating categories to worry about, this is a great card for folks who put lots of miles on their cars.
Propel’s utility isn’t limited to its expansive cash back program. This card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, so it’s an ideal secondary card (perhaps for use only at the pump) and a great overseas spending aid to boot. The introductory APR promotion isn’t half bad either.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn 30,000 bonus points (worth up to $300 when redeemed for cash) when you make at least $3,000 in qualifying purchases within 3 months of your account opening date.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee or foreign transaction fee. Balance transfers cost the greater of $5 or 3% of the transferred amount during the first 120 days, then the greater of $5 or 5%. Cash advances cost the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: There is a 0% purchase and balance transfer APR for 12 months (qualifying balance transfers must be made within 120 days of account opening). After that, regular variable APR applies (currently 16.24% to 28.24% variable).
Other Perks: Perks include extended warranties lasting one additional year from the expiration of the manufacturer’s warranty, reimbursement for covered losses (up to certain limits) when items are damaged or stolen after purchase, and cell phone protection (subject to limitations and exclusions).
See our Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card Review for more information. Learn more about this card and find out how you can apply here.
4. Chase Freedom®
5% Cash Back on Gas Purchases During 1 Quarter per Year (On Average); Great Sign-up Bonus
Chase Freedom is a general-purpose cash back credit card that offers 5% cash back on purchases up to $1,500 in quarterly rotating categories. All other purchases earn 1% cash back, with no spending caps or earning limits. Notably, there’s no annual fee. You can redeem for checks, statement credits, direct deposits, and purchases through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal. There’s no redemption minimum.
While gas and gas stations aren’t always part of the 5% club, Chase Freedom has historically included at-the-pump gas or gas station purchases (covering all U.S. brands, in both cases) in at least 1 of its 4 annual 5% bonus rotating categories. In other words, you can expect your Chase Freedom card to pay 5% on gas purchases roughly 3 or more months out of the year. Plus, there’s a really nice sign-up bonus and a solid intro APR period. However, you need to manually activate your 5% cash back categories before the middle of their expiration month.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn a $150 cash back bonus when you make at least $500 in qualifying purchases within 3 months of account opening.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee. The foreign transaction fee is a flat 3%. When you transfer a balance within the first 60 days, the balance transfer fee is the greater of 3% or $5 of the transferred amount. Thereafter, the balance transfer fee is the greater of 5% or $5. Cash advances always cost the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: There is a 0% purchase and balance transfer APR for 15 months. After that, regular variable APR applies.
Other Perks: The Chase Purchase Protection insurance product covers all purchases made with your Chase Freedom card for 120 days, up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.
See our Chase Freedom Card Review for more information. Find out how you can apply for this card here.
5. Chase Ink Business CashSM Credit Card
2% Cash Back on Up to $25,000 in Gas Purchases; Up to 5% Cash Back on Other Spending Categories; Business Users Only
Chase Ink Business CashSM is a business credit card with a very generous gas reward: 2% cash back on combined gas station (in-store and at the pump) and restaurant purchases, up to $25,000 per year. You can redeem for statement credits, direct deposits, checks, and Ultimate Rewards purchases, starting at a $20 minimum.
Ink Business Cash’s rewards don’t stop there. The card also offers 5% cash back on office supply and communications purchases (cellular phone, landline, Internet, and cable TV services), up to $25,000 per year. All other purchases earn 1% cash back, with no spending caps or earning limits. Other perks include a nice sign-up bonus, no annual fee (which is somewhat unusual for a business card), and relatively low APR.
Remember that the Ink Business CashSM is meant for business financing. If you don’t own your own business, you likely won’t qualify for this card.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn $500 bonus cash back when you spend at least $3,000 in qualifying purchases within 3 months.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee. Foreign transactions cost 3%. Balance transfers cost the greater of $5 or 5%, and cash advances the greater of $15 or 5%. Late payments range from $15 to $39, depending on balance size.
Introductory APR: 0% on purchases for 12 months. After that, regular variable APR applies.
Other Perks: Extended warranty protection extends warranties lasting less than three years for an additional year at no additional charge.
See our Chase Ink Business Cash Card Review for more information. Find out how you can apply for this card here.
6. Hilton Honors Amex Ascend Card
6X Points on Gas Purchases
The Hilton Honors Amex Ascend card is arguably the best hotel credit card for gas rewards. If you frequently travel for business and have a long commute to the home office, or need to cover an extensive sales territory by car, this is the card for you – provided you can find a Hilton property on the road.
All gas station purchases earn unlimited 6 Honors points per $1 spent. So to do supermarket and restaurant purchases. Qualified purchases at Hilton properties earn a whopping 12 points per $1 spent, while all other purchases earn unlimited 3 points per $1 spent. Award night redemptions start as low as 5,000 points per night at the lowest-tier Hilton properties, so you can treat yourself to a free stay after as little as $834 in gas spending. If business takes you abroad, you’ll make out well with no foreign transaction fee here.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn 125,000 bonus Hilton Honors points when you spend at least $2,000 during the first 3 months your account is open. That’s worth up to 25 free nights when redeemed for award stays at the lowest-tier Hilton properties.
Key Fees: The annual fee is $95. There’s no foreign transaction fee. Cash advances cost the greater of $5 or 3%.
Introductory APR: There’s no introductory APR promotion.
Other Perks: This card comes with a slew of benefits for frequent travelers, including a free weekend award night every year in which you spend at least $15,000, complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status as long as your account remains in good standing, and up to 10 free visits to participating Priority Pass airport lounges.
See our Hilton Honors Amex Ascend Card Review for more information.
7. Citi Premier℠ Card
3x Points on Gas Purchases; No Foreign Transaction Fees
The Citi Premier℠ Card is a travel rewards credit card with a great gas benefits. You earn 3 points per $1 spent on all travel purchases, including in-store and at-the-pump gas station purchases across the U.S., as well as 3 points per dollar spent on airfare, hotels, and rental cars. You earn 2 points per $1 on dining and entertainment purchases, and 1 point per $1 spent on everything else.
Redeem your points at Citi’s ThankYou® portal, where you can buy airfare and other travel items, gift cards at major merchants, apparel, electronics, statement credits (your best bet if you’re looking for a cash equivalent), direct purchases with retailers like Amazon and Best Buy, and much more. Redemption minimums vary by redemption method. Another perk: no foreign transaction fee.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points when you make at least $4,000 in purchases with your card within the 3 months of opening your account.
Key Fees: The annual fee is $95. There’s no foreign transaction fee, but late and returned payments both cost $35. Balance transfers run the greater of $5 or 3%, and cash advances cost the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: There’s no intro APR.
See our Citi Premier℠ Card Review for more information. Learn more about this card here.
8. U.S. Bank Business Edge™ Cash Rewards World Elite™ Mastercard®
3% Unlimited Cash Back on Gas, Cellular, and Office Supply Purchases
U.S. Bank Business Edge Cash Rewards is another no-annual-fee business credit card meant for small business owners. With unlimited 3% cash back on at-the-pump gas, cellular, and office supply purchases, it’s an on-the-go business owner’s dream – and eliminates worry about sticking to spending limits. The redemption minimum is $25, and you can redeem for statement credits, direct deposits (U.S. Bank accounts only), or Mastercard gift cards.
Like the Ink Business Cash Card, this card is only for business owners. If you don’t own your own business, look elsewhere. To maximize the gas benefit, order additional credit cards (at no extra charge) for your field employees.
Sign-up Bonus: Earn $200 bonus cash when you spend at least $1,000 in eligible purchases during the first 3 months your account is open.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee. Balance transfers cost the greater of $5 or 3%, and cash advances cost the greater of $10 or 4%. Foreign transactions run 2% if denominated in dollars, and 3% if denominated in foreign currency. Late fees range from $19 to $39, depending on balance size.
Introductory APR: There is an intro 0% purchase APR for 9 months. After that, variable regular APR applies.
Other Perks: You can get an unlimited number of employee cards (tied to the same account) at no additional charge. All extra employee cards also earn cash rewards.
Find out how you can apply for this card here.
9. Sunoco Rewards Credit Card
Instant Unlimited $0.05 Off per Gallon on Gas Purchased at Sunoco Gas Stations
The Sunoco Rewards Card offers a simple, powerful gas reward: unlimited $0.05 off per gallon of gas purchased at U.S. Sunoco gas stations. The discount is automatically applied with no action required on your part, except to use the card to purchase gas, and no other restrictions. Watch out for this card’s high APR.
Sign-up Bonus: There’s no sign-up bonus.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee or foreign transaction fee. Late payments cost $38, and the cash advance fee is the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: There’s no intro APR.
Other Perks: Get unlimited extra cards for family members at no additional cost.
Find out how you can apply for this card here.
10. Citi Rewards+℠ Card Review
2X Points on Gas Station Purchases, Up to $6,000 in Category Spending Per Year
The Citi Rewards+℠ Card earns 2 ThankYou points per $1 spent on eligible gas station purchases, up to $6,000 in annual combined category spending. Supermarket purchases also earn 2 points per $1 spent and count toward the $6,000 spending cap for bonus point earnings. Above the annual cap, all purchases, including gas station purchases, earn unlimited 1 point per $1 spent. Citi Rewards is the only card that automatically rounds up to the nearest 10 points on every purchase, every time.
Like ThankYou points earned through Citi Premier, you can redeem for pretty much anything at the ThankYou portal, and you can shop with points at major merchants like Amazon and Best Buy as well. For the first year, you’ll get 10% points back on the first 100,000 points redeemed.
Sign-up Bonus: When you spend at least $1,000 in eligible purchases during the first 3 months your account is open, you’ll earn 15,000 bonus ThankYou points. That’s enough to redeem for $150 in gift cards.
Key Fees: There’s no annual fee. The foreign transaction fee is 3%. Late payments cost $38, and the cash advance fee is the greater of $10 or 5%.
Introductory APR: 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months. After that, the variable APR is 15.74% to 25.74%, based on your creditworthiness.
See our Citi Rewards+℠ Card Review for more information. Find out how you can apply for this card here.
Since most American households own at least one car, and gas is therefore a necessary expense for most people, it’s no surprise that gas is such a popular credit card rewards category.
On the other hand, even the most committed drivers spend money on plenty of things other than gas. If you drive often, by all means, sign up for one of the gas rewards credit cards. However, consider pairing your gas card with a general-purpose rewards card that offers cash back on a wider range of purchase types – or all purchases, regardless of type. Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards and Citi Double Cash are great examples of generous general-purpose cards.
And before you submit your gas credit card application, make sure you’re actually going to use it enough to make it worthwhile. Consider how much you drive and what type of car you own, which merchants accept the card, whether you’re allowed to use it at grocery store or warehouse club gas stations, and the regular purchase APR. Always read your card’s fine print, and check for changes regularly after you start using it.
Finally, if at all possible, pay your balance in full each month. If paying in full is a challenge, opt for a low APR credit card instead.
What’s your favorite gas rewards credit card?
Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith.
You Need a Budget was the first personal finance software package I really fell in love with. I dabbled with Microsoft Money (RIP) and Quicken when I was first turning my finances around, but it was You Need a Budget that really clicked with me when I started using a spreadsheet-based version of the software many years ago, and I still use You Need a Budget 4 (the last standalone version of the software) on occasion when trying to get a clear picture of my finances because I simply love how it handles and displays my financial information.
What drew me to the software more than anything, however, was the philosophy behind it. YNAB wasn’t just a piece of software for tracking your finances; it was designed to help you follow a rather in depth philosophy and program for improving your financial state, something that other major personal finance software packages never really had (and still don’t, for the most part). That philosophy, encapsulated in four simple rules, was the really valuable part of the whole system.
That brings me around to this book. You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham (the founder of YNAB) is basically the philosophy behind YNAB expanded with details into a short but quite powerful book, a book that I want to dig deep into because of the all-around solid personal finance philosophy and system it contains.
Let’s dive right in.
A New Way to Look at Your Money
The book starts off with an insightful criticism of the traditional form of budgeting, budgeting in which you merely list a lot of categories, come up with spending targets for each category, and then aim for those targets in those categories.
What’s wrong with it? It’s inflexible. You can’t prioritize one budget category over another. It’s inherently predictive, meaning you’re trying to guess what the future holds every time you make a spending target.
The big shift that the YNAB philosophy makes is that it focuses on spending what you have right now, rather than what you project you’ll have going forward, with a particular emphasis on how that money can get you to your goals. In other words, it chops the concept of projecting future income out of budgeting entirely.
The interesting part of this method as opposed to traditional budgeting is that it highlights the scarcity of money, as is nicely described on page 20:
[T]his feeling of scarcity is a good thing. It means you’re seeing your money for what it truly is: a finite resource – and this is a huge part of that mindset shift I talked about. It doesn’t actually matter how much money we have or don’t have. Scarcity is simply that feeling of wishing their were more. This is an important moment. The feeling of scarcity might tempt us to quit, but when we step back and embrace scarcity, we make good decisions.
I found this really interesting because it seems to fly in the face of the idea of an abundance mindset. In many aspects of life, it’s much better to have an “abundance” mindset, meaning that you perceive that the pie is infinite in size so it’s not a big deal to share with others because you’ll still have more than enough for yourself. YNAB centers around the opposite idea, at least for your finances: all you have is this little pool of money.
The argument is that, in terms of your money, the future is abundant and thus very difficult to reasonably budget. The present of your financial situation, however, is scarce – there’s only a limited amount of money and you have to make the most of it that you can.
The advantage of applying a scarcity mindset to your financial state is that it shows you that each dollar is important and everything in your life is vying for each and every dollar because there’s only so much to go around. Much of the justification for splurging comes from an abundance mindset about money – there will always be more money, so why not just spend it now on something unimportant? When you walk away from that mindset and adopt a scarcity mindset for your money, splurging becomes just another competitor alongside things that are likely more important to you.
Because you’re treating every expense and financial goal as a hungry mouth wanting to devour part of that relatively small pool of money you have right now, you have to prioritize. Which of these expenses is the most important right now? If I give $200 to this, what other possible expense has to go without money for now? You begin to feel those little frivolous nickel and dime expenses actually ripping money away from things you know are more important, and that forces you to start thinking about every dollar with seriousness.
Another interesting aspect to this perspective is that it forces you to start taking responsibility for your future now. If you want to have things in the future, you have to put money aside for them now. Taking money away from future savings goals and giving it to something else is effectively saying no to your future goals. If you want that future goal, you have to put your money where your mouth is now. There is no “someday” that will take care of it.
This leads directly into the first “rule” of the YNAB philosophy.
Rule One – Give Every Dollar a Job
It’s simple. From page 33:
Just check your bank account balance and assign a job to every dollar you own. You’re officially budgeting the moment you start doing this, and with every “job” you assign, you’re answering the question: What do I want my money to do for me?
Of course, this starts with figuring out what needs to get done with your money along with what your big goals are. What are the urgent things that have to be covered soon, like your current bills, the rent, your food needs in the next week or so, and so on? What long term things do you want to happen in your life? What fun things do you want to do in the near future – or even a little way down the road? What big bills are coming up?
You want to start with survival. What do you need to make it through the next few weeks with your basic well being intact? You need food, water, shelter, hygiene, and clothes on your back, basically. After that, move onto obligations – electricity, debt payments, garbage removal, and so on. Those are the basics. Those are the needs. Those are the things that, if you don’t handle them, your short term life gets bad quickly. It is vital to separate these things from non-essential habits that you’re treating as necessities. Coffee isn’t a necessity – it’s a non-essential habit. Non-basic foods aren’t a necessity – they’re just something you want because it’s tasty or healthy or whatever. Alcohol? Not a necessity. Filter those things out for now.
You’ll also need to consider longer-term obligations, like upcoming expenses that you know are coming. It’s time to cover a fraction of those things – and cover another fraction each time you get an influx of cash.
After that, it really comes down to your personal priorities, and that’s where you need to start thinking. What is actually a real priority in my life? The nice part about this philosophy is that it’s literally about putting your money where your mouth is. Once you’ve covered survival and obligations, the things you do with your money are up to your personal priorities, and there’s no hiding them here. What you do with your money is your true priority, regardless of what you tell yourself.
The use of each and every dollar you have is an expression of either the basic needs of your life or what your life’s priorities are. Each and every dollar has a “job,” in other words. It’s doing something for you.
My experience has been that the more in line your personal priorities are with the “job” you assign to every dollar in your life, the more peaceful you feel. It’s when you’re not taking care of something that you’re theoretically prioritizing so that you can spend money on something that has a lower priority for you that you run into financial trouble, every time. It’s all about carefully considering what your priorities are.
This does not mean having no fun. However, what it does mean is that things that you spend money that have a comparatively low return in terms of the pleasure they give you should be pretty low on the priority list, below a lot of your long term goals. It’s okay to prioritize a few pleasures that bring you a lot of joy in the short term, but you have to be discerning about it. Some things simply aren’t as big of a deal as others, and those lesser things need to fall rapidly down the priority list.
This becomes very real when you’re looking at the money sitting in your checking account right now and assigning each and every dollar in there a job. Where does each of those dollars go? Doing it well requires some real thought and introspection, and that’s the real value of this system.
Rule Two – Embrace Your True Expenses
The “true expenses” that this chapter is talking about is alluded to a little bit in the previous chapter, but this chapter brings it into focus. It’s not just about making sure the bills are covered each month, but making sure that you’re also taking care of the irregular expenses in your life.
For example, let’s say you know you have an insurance bill for $700 coming due in 7 months, and you get paid twice a month. That means you should probably put $50 out of your current pile of cash aside toward that insurance bill and then do it again every time you have a cash influx so that the insurance bill is easily paid when it comes due.
Those are your true expenses – not just the daily ones or the monthly ones, but the irregular ones that come around once every six months or once a year or whatever. In the YNAB system, those required but infrequent expenses should always be directly gobbling up a little piece of the pool of money you have right now, as well as a piece of every influx of money that comes in (like a paycheck).
There are also things that are unexpected and inevitable, like needing to replace parts on your car or having to repair appliances in your home. It can be very hard to estimate these kinds of things, but following routine maintenance on a 15,000 mile per year car is about $50 per month, and a good annual budget for unexpected home costs is about 1% of your home’s value, so you can break that down, too. Those are pieces that need to come out of the pool of cash you have.
Beyond that, this is how you plan ahead for your big life goals. What slice of the current cash you have available is going to retirement? What about college savings for your kids? Your house down payment?
This obviously requires some planning, and that’s where software can help. The YNAB software is designed to do this very naturally, and it’s why I fell in love with it years ago. You can actually do all of this on a spreadsheet, too, if you’re familiar with Excel or Google Sheets.
Rule Three – Roll with the Punches
Just as it’s impossible to micromanage every second of your time because unexpected events always happen, it’s impossible to micromanage your money because of the unexpected events life deals us. We can have the best money plan in the world, but when something like a job loss or an unexpected family illness or a hailstorm occurs, the best laid plans are torn to shreds.
Unexpected expenses can often mean changing your budget, and changing your budget can feel like failure. It can feel like you didn’t plan for everything and now all of your planning is worthless.
Part of the value of this type of financial planning is that, once it gets going, it becomes very possible to roll with the punches. If a sudden high priority event comes along, you simply take cash designated for lower priority events to handle it. In other words, once you’ve been doing this for a while, your budget becomes something of a living thing, capable of changing and morphing around the unexpected moments of your life.
How does this work? Let’s say you decided you wanted to buy a new television for your family for Christmas and budgeted $1,000 for it. Using the YNAB system, you decide to put aside $50 per paycheck for it starting in February. September rolls around and suddenly the unexpected happens – you have a sudden $500 expense. Guess what? You can handle it. You have the cash set aside to do so.
But what happens to that television plan? Once the urgent thing is paid for, you reprioritize. Do you want to put aside $100 per paycheck until Christmas to cover it, or are there other priorities that you should deal with first? You get to make that choice because of the freedom that YNAB offers you.
The system really centers around prioritizing your expenses, and when an urgent expense comes in with a higher priority, then you can take away money put aside for lower priority expenses (like a $1,000 television for the holidays) to handle it. The key is understanding that you’re really only worried about the pool of money that you actually have in hand and how to use every dollar most effectively. You don’t worry about the next influx of cash until it arrives.
Rule Four – Age Your Money
The real power of this system is that, over time, it moves you to a situation where you don’t need your next paycheck, and given a long enough timeframe, it moves you to a situation where you don’t need any paycheck.
It’s actually quite simple. All you really have to do is over prepare a little for each of those expenses you know are coming so that eventually you’re covering next month’s rent out of this month’s pool of cash because the next rent payment is already covered. Then you’re covering two months in advance, then three.
Let’s say that you’re paid twice a month and your rent is $1,000 a month. If you say that out of every incoming pool of cash, you set aside $600 for rent, you will have next month’s rent covered at the end of the month with $200 left over. Do that again next month and there’s $400 left over. Three months later and you actually have a full month of rent already in the can in advance and you can start preparing for subsequent months.
Mecham refers to this as “aging your money.” You’re effectively using money you brought in two or three months ago to pay your rent now.
If you do that for every bill, a lot of good things start to happen.
For one, you can survive for a while without any influxes of cash. You roll right through a job change without skipping a beat. You get fired? No problem, as long as you can find a job in the next month or two. You have a sudden life emergency? No problem – you can just nibble a bit from the money you have put aside for rent two months from now.
For another, you can start feeling confident investing for really long term stuff. If you have two months of rent checks already covered, you can tone down your $600 twice a month put aside for rent down to $550 or $525, then apply that $50 or $75 twice a month to, say, retirement savings or an extra payment toward paying off a student loan. Think of it this way: you have the money set aside to cover all of your survival needs and obligations for the next two months, so you can start working on covering a month’s worth of survival needs and obligations for yourself when you’re old by contributing to retirement savings. It’s the same thing, just very long term.
For yet another, your money starts to earn money for itself as it is aging. When you only age it for a month or two in savings, it only earns a little bit of interest, but when you age money for 30 years in a retirement account, it earns a ton of return on your money.
For yet another, the more you age your money, the larger your pool of money that you have available to make decisions with. Remember, the YNAB philosophy orients itself around making decisions regarding only the money you have in hand. Thus, the more money you have on hand, the richer your decision making palette and the easier it seems to make room for big long term goals.
So, how do you get there? The book suggests setting a simple goal (page 110):
Set a goal to save what you spend in a typical month. When you hit your goal, budget out the new month with that money. Now your next paycheck can go to the following month. Your money is officially thirty days old.
And how do you get there?
Embrace the sprint. Go on a no-spending spree for as long as you can. Also hustle to bring in extra cash in creative (and legal) ways. Anything you save or earn goes straight to your savings for the next month.
The more you age your money, the better. It not only gives you breathing room, but it also grows your money.
The rest of the book consists of a series of short chapters talking about specific applications of these four rules to specific life situations.
Budgeting as a Couple
Here, Mecham essentially reiterates the core advice that almost everyone gives for couples dealing with money issues, because it’s hands-down the best advice and the one thing that works: communicate. You’ve got to talk about your money situation together, openly, with minimal emotion, and with a genuine intent to put you both in the best life possible.
The main focus of the chapter is on the idea of a monthly “money date,” where you sit down with your partner and fully go through your finances and budget, setting priorities together for the next month. Together is important here; there’s almost no better way for this to fall apart than for one partner to just dictate the financial rules to the other one.
One important part of “couples budgeting” is to recognize that you both need a bit of personal fun money. There has to be some breathing room in the budget for each of you to pursue your own interests or else there will be backlash against the whole idea, especially from the person less committed to the concept, so this should be a fairly high priority item. Now, if that person decides to use that personal fun money of theirs buying soft drinks at the convenience store, that’s their call.
Slaying Debt, Whatever Your Situation
How does debt repayment work into all of this?
First of all, accruing more debt should be pretty much entirely off the table if you’re using this philosophy. That includes credit card debt. The only time you might consider debt once you get this whole strategy rolling is something like a home loan or possibly a student loan, but consumer debt should be almost entirely avoided because you’re planning ahead for expenses now and sticking with just the pool of money you actually have in hand for your spending.
As for repayment of the debt you already have, the best strategy is to treat your basic payment as an obligation and treat an extra payment as a fairly high priority but non-essential item that you want to throw some money to each time money comes into your accounts. So, you make sure your minimum is covered, and then you put some significant priority to allotting some cash for an extra payment on that debt.
Teaching Your Kids to Budget
Mecham advocates giving children an allowance and using that as a basis for teaching basic money management skills when they reach middle and upper elementary and middle school. He advocates giving them one or two required commitments for portions of their allowance and then complete freedom in terms of the rest of it.
The one or two required commitments for a portion of their allowance – things like saving for college or giving to charity – are basically a microcosm of YNAB. If you talk about the philosophy behind this a little and then talk about how they can use the idea to take a portion of their weekly allowance and put it aside for bigger goals (like, say, a new game for their Nintendo Switch or a bunch of new canvases for painting), they’ll often come around to it on their own.
Even better, if you establish this kind of pattern early on in their life, they’re more likely to draw on that type of thinking later in life to build their own path to financial independence from you and financial success on their own.
When You Feel Like Quitting
This last section discusses a lot of reasons why people quit budgeting: they don’t leave themselves any breathing room, they set unrealistically low spending targets for things like household supplies or food, they assume that they can rapidly and permanently change a lot of their routines and habits, they demand too much too soon, and so on.
The key to sticking with a financial change, no matter what it is, is to accept that things won’t always go perfectly and it’s okay to be imperfect. What you’re looking for more than anything is to be a little better today than you were yesterday and to gradually move towards where you want to be while recognizing that steps backward are normal and aren’t a terrible sign of failure.
If you feel like quitting or feel like a failure, look at the progress you’ve made so far and feel good about it, then refactor your plans. What parts work well? Keep those. Which parts don’t work well? Ditch them or try new versions of them. No one has a perfect plan the first time they try.
A Brief Note About the Software
Although my focus here was writing about the bookYou Need a Budget, I felt it appropriate to make some references to the software package You Need a Budget a few times, and rather than reiterating my thoughts on the software package, I thought I’d summarize my thoughts in one place near the end.
Several years ago, YNAB version 4 was hands down my favorite piece of personal finance software. In fact, I still use that exact version at home because of how well it embodies the philosophy spelled out in this book, a philosophy I strongly agree with in most ways.
However, several years ago, YNAB chose to discontinue their standalone version 4 software and instead moved to a subscription-based software package. While I have no objection to the concept of software as service, I didn’t migrate to the subscription based version because, well, I still use my old version 4 software. I did do a trial of the subscription-based version, but I was pretty happy with my old software for a number of reasons (it does what I want, for one, and it also keeps all of my data local rather than in the cloud) and I’ll stick with it as long as it still runs.
So, if it seemed like I often stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of the software in its current form, that’s why. I don’t actually use the current form. Having said that, the current form of the software is a really well executed embodiment of the principles described in that book and cloud software is mature enough that I would feel safe putting information into the software that didn’t directly reveal my identity. It is the best budgeting software around today.
This book is a great readable explanation of the You Need a Budget philosophy and how to apply it to one’s own finances. This philosophy – and the accompanying software – was a vital part of my own financial turnaround, particularly during the period when we were finishing up paying off our consumer debt and considering buying a home and then figuring out how to handle expenses with multiple children. I still use the principles of the system, and I still occasionally use the software, though much of our financial organization is automated at this point. (In fact, the automation itself is a lot like You Need a Budget, as the automation just moves a lot of our income off to various pools and accounts for specific purposes.)
If you know of someone just trying to get a grip on managing their own money and getting a little ahead of the paycheck to paycheck life while building a foundation of money principles that can really grow with them as they get more and more ahead financially, this is a great book for them. The material might seem overly straightforward for someone who is already in a great financial place, but roughly 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and quite a few of them want a path out of that life, and this book’s a great starting point for them.