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How to Find a Great Real Estate Agent (Realtor) You Can Trust

Would you consider hiring a home improvement contractor without first checking references and analyzing their portfolio of past work? Probably not. Most people do their research before they hire service professionals like roofers, plumbers, and general contractors to make sure they find someone trustworthy.

However, this due diligence often falls by the wayside when it comes to hiring a real estate agent. Yet buying or selling a home is one of the biggest financial decisions you’ll make, and finding the right person to represent your interests is key to getting the best deal or the best return on your investment.

If you choose the right real estate agent, the process will go relatively smoothly. However, the wrong agent can wreak havoc on a transaction and possibly even lose you the sale entirely. In other words, it’s a big decision.

But what should you look for when hiring a real estate agent? What red flags should you watch out for? Here’s what you need to know to find a great real estate agent.

What Type of Agent Do You Need?

First things first: Are you buying a home or selling a home? This answer is key to figuring out the type of agent you need.

Agents who work with homeowners selling a home are called “seller’s agents” or “listing agents.” These agents represent the interests of the homeowner during the listing and negotiation process.

Agents who work with homebuyers are called “buyer’s agents” or “selling agents.” These agents represent the interests of the buyer during the showing and negotiation process. Some buyer’s agents work exclusively with buyers, meaning they don’t list any homes at all.

The terms “seller’s agent” and “selling agent” often confuse people in the home buying and home selling process because they sound almost identical. However, they represent different parties with different interests. Seller’s agents represent the party selling a home, while selling agents represent the party buying the home; however, they’re only called a “selling agent” once the final contract is signed.

Dual Agents

Some agents are called “dual agents,” which means they’ve agreed to represent the interests of both the buyer and seller during the home buying process.

Here’s how it works. Imagine you walk into an open house and fall in love with the place. It’s a hot property, and you know it’s not going to last. You just started your home search and don’t have your own agent. However, the listing agent is on site and would love to help you make an offer on the home right there. You don’t want to wait to get your own agent, so you agree to work with her. In this case, you just entered a working relationship with a dual agent.

Dual agency is controversial because agents are forced to walk a very fine line and stay neutral throughout the process. After all, they’re representing a seller who wants to get the highest price possible for their home and a buyer who wants to get the lowest price possible for that same home.

There’s also a potential conflict of interest because of commission. In a typical sale, the buyer’s agent and listing agent split the roughly 6% commission, getting roughly 3% each. A dual agent keeps 100% of the commission, which means it’s in their best interest to sell a home for the highest price possible. This works out great for the seller, but not so great for the buyer.

Many real estate professionals feel strongly about dual agency, with good reason. Dual agents are legally prohibited from taking sides in the transaction or sharing confidential information. So they get double the commission while providing less advice and guidance to both parties. Most of the time, the only person who really benefits is the agent.

Dual agency is only legal in some states, such as California and Texas. In the states where it’s allowed, agents are legally bound to disclose their dual agency before a contract is signed. To find out if dual agency is legal in your state, simply Google “Is dual agency legal in” along with your state’s name.

How to Find a Great Real Estate Agent

Not every agent out there will be the right fit for you. Even highly successful agents have their downsides.

For example, the top-selling agent in your area might have an impressive advertising budget and a large team in place to assist clients. However, this might mean you end up working with several different people throughout the buying or selling process. If you’re looking for personal attention, this particular agent might not be the best fit.

On the other hand, you might come across an agent with much less experience but whose personality fits perfectly with yours. You suspect that their drive to make you happy — and receive some much-needed referrals and testimonials in return — might be more important than experience alone.

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to finding the best agent for your situation. Here’s how to get started.

1. Create a Short List of Agents

Thanks to Google, you can easily find dozens to hundreds of agents in your area with a few keystrokes. However, you’ll usually find more detailed information on agents through a real estate website.

One of the best places to start your search is Zillow’s Agent Finder, which allows you to see a full list of local agents with their client testimonials and recent listings. The recent listings feature is especially useful. First, you can use it to find agents who have recently worked with sellers or buyers in the area you’re considering. If you’re selling your home, it also lets you analyze how each agent photographs and markets their listings. For example, does each listing look professional and appealing? Is there a video tour?

Other helpful websites include and HomeLight.

Make a list of at least three agents you’re interested in interviewing.

2. Ask Lots Questions

Now that you’ve got a short list of agents, your next step is to talk to them in person. Yes, you can do a phone interview, but meeting in person is better.

A face-to-face meeting allows you to really get a feel for who this person is, what their values are, and whether or not their personality will fit well with yours. This is the person who will be guiding you through a stressful, and financially significant, process; you need to feel comfortable talking with them. You also need to know if they’re going to tell you the truth instead of sugar-coating some bad news. And you need to know that you share the same core values.

Real Estate Agent Interview Meeting Asking Questions

Start with these general questions:

  • Do you work in real estate full-time?
  • How long have you been licensed?
  • Are you a member of the National Association of Realtors (NAR)? (The NAR requires additional training and adherence to a strict code of ethics.)
  • Do you work with a team? If so, will I primarily work with you or someone else?
  • How much of your business comes from referrals?
  • What is your average number of current clients?
  • How do you like to communicate? (For example, your agent might prefer quick texts to pass along information, while you’d rather have a phone call. Make sure you’re on the same page here, as good communication is key to a successful working relationship.)
  • Has a client ever filed a complaint against you or your agency? If so, how did you handle it?
  • Have you won any professional awards?
  • What kind of contract do you offer? What happens if I’m unhappy with our working relationship?
  • What do you like best about being a realtor? What do you like least?

These questions are a great way to get the conversation started. However, you’ll need to ask additional questions depending on if you’re buying or selling.

If You’re Selling a Home

If you’re selling a home, ask potential agents the following questions:

  • How many sales did you close this year?
  • How many homes have you sold in my area? Were they in a similar price range as my home?
  • How many of those homes sold at or near the list price?
  • Do you require pre-qualification or pre-approval from a mortgage company before showing homes?
  • What is your fee? What other real estate fees will I be responsible for? (Keep in mind that real estate fees are negotiable.)
  • What is your marketing strategy for a home like mine?
  • Do you use a professional photographer or home stager?
  • What do I need to do to get my house ready for sale or increase its curb appeal? (They might have some suggestions for remodeling projects to increase your home’s value.)
  • Do you host open houses?
  • How long do you think it will take to sell my home?
  • Who is my target buyer?

If You’re Buying a Home

If you’re buying a home, consider these questions:

  • How familiar are you with the areas or neighborhoods I’m interested in?
  • Is there anything happening in this area or neighborhood that I should know about? If so, will these changes affect home prices now or in the future?
  • What times are you available to show houses?
  • How often will you send me new listings that match what I’m looking for?
  • Can you recommend other professionals I’ll need, such as a home inspector?
  • How long does the typical buying process take with you?
  • How many homes do you show buyers, on average, before they make an offer? (This is an important statistic because a good realtor will know what their clients want and will have to show fewer homes before finding the right fit. This saves time and energy for everyone involved.)
  • Do you attend each home inspection? (Agents who attend home inspections can ask the home inspector detailed questions directly; this information can help them negotiate a lower price.)
  • What is your sale-to-list ratio for your last 10 transactions? (The difference between the sale price and list price will give you an important clue about how good this agent is at negotiating.)

3. Talk to Past Clients

Once you’ve interviewed several agents in person, it’s essential to talk to some of their past clients. Ask each agent to provide you with contact information for at least three clients they’ve worked with in the past year.

Consider asking these clients the following questions:

  • How was your experience with this agent overall?
  • What did you like best about this agent? What did you like least?
  • If you sold your home, how did the agent market your property? Do you feel it was effective? How long was your home on the market?
  • If you bought your home, do you feel the agent was willing to show you every property you were interested in? Did you feel they understood what you really wanted in a home?
  • Were they quick to respond to phone calls and email?
  • Are they a good listener?
  • What was your home’s list price and final sale price?
  • Do you feel this agent got you the best price possible?

4. Verify Their License

It’s hard to believe that someone would lie about being a licensed real estate agent, but it happens. Fortunately, there’s an easy way for consumers to check that an agent’s license is legitimate. The Association of Real Estate License Law Officials (ARELLO) has a searchable database that allows consumers to verify any agent’s license or registration.

Working With New Agents: Pros & Cons

If you’re considering working with an agent with little or no experience, then you need to find out more about their current situation and future goals.

For example, many agents begin their careers selling homes on the side while still holding down a full-time job. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s important to find out whether this agent will have the time and flexibility you need. Consider these questions:

  • Will you be able to return phone calls or emails during the day, or only in the evening?
  • Will you be limited to showing homes only on the weekend?
  • Do you have a mentor you can turn to if the negotiation process gets tricky or unfamiliar?
  • Have you attended any recent conferences or seminars? If so, which ones?

Keep in mind that new agents won’t have the experience of seasoned professionals; real estate is definitely a “learn as you go” profession. This lack of experience can be a drawback at the negotiation table, especially in complex transactions. Are you comfortable being part of this agent’s learning process?

That said, new agents are hungry for both clients and experience, and as the old saying goes, “The hungry wolf hunts best.” An inexperienced agent will likely bend over backward to meet your needs and make you happy, and they’ll probably have plenty of time to give you one-on-one attention. Weigh what you want and what you’re comfortable with before signing a contract

Red Flags to Look Out For

According to ARELLO, as quoted by NAR, there are around 2 million active real estate agents in the United States. That means there are plenty of great agents to be had. It also means you’re likely to run into some bad apples.

Make sure you find an agent who’s right for you by keeping an eye out for these red flags.

1. They Want to List Your Home at a High Price

If you’re selling your home, the initial list price is key to a successful sale.

Hopefully, you’re planning on interviewing at least three listing agents. Each of these agents should be able to tell you what they’d like to list your home at. This list price is based on a number of factors, including your location, square footage, recent comparable sales in your area (called “comps), and the home’s age and condition.

All the agents you interview are using the same information to price your home, which means that all the quotes should be pretty similar. Beware of an agent who prices your home significantly higher than other agents you interviewed; this is a sign of inexperience, greed, or both.

A price that’s too high means that many prospective buyers won’t even look at your home because it’s out of their budget or simply too expensive for what they’d be getting. Your home will languish on the market for months longer than a more competitively priced home, and it might even sell for much less than it would have with an accurate starting price.

2. They’re a Poor Communicator

All too often, a lack of communication is the No. 1 complaint from people working with real estate agents.

Clear and timely communication is essential in the home buying and home selling process. Real estate agents need to be great communicators to effectively help their clients and ensure that this complicated process comes to a close successfully. In some cases, you’ll be communicating with this person on a daily basis.

Look carefully at a prospective agent’s emails to you, their marketing materials, and their website or blog. Is their writing clear and free of errors? Is it easy to understand what they’re talking about? When you initially contacted them, did they return your call or email in a timely fashion? During the interview, do they take the time to listen to what you’re saying, or do they cut you off and start talking?

Poor writing and communication skills could mean that the agent won’t convey important information quickly or clearly, or it might signal that they’re just too busy to work with you. Either way, move on.

3. They Don’t Ask Questions

Great agents are great listeners. They know that the key to a successful working relationship hinges on understanding what you want and need.

A good agent will take time to find out more about your dreams and goals. For example, if you’re buying a home, a good agent will want to know if you’re an investor or looking for a long-term home. If you’re selling, a good agent might ask about your timeline, pricing flexibility, and what you’re looking for in the relationship.

These are just a few examples; the point is that a good agent will ask questions to learn what you’re looking for. If the agent keeps mum, go with someone else.

4. Their Commission Is Low

The seller pays real estate commissions, which are is usually included in the list price of the home. Typically, commissions are 6%, which is split between the listing agent and buyer’s agent.

If an agent quotes you a commission lower than 5%, beware. They might be trying to win your business by offering you a deal, but this ultra-low commission will likely scare off other agents who don’t want to share such a low fee.

Final Word

Buying and selling a home is emotional and stressful for many reasons. A lot is at stake, and it’s one of the biggest financial decisions you’ll make in your life. Finding the right agent for your situation is key to making sure the transaction goes smoothly and everyone walks away happy.

When I sold my first home, I didn’t give any thought to who my listing agent would be — a common mistake for first-time homebuyers. I went with the agent we’d used when we bought the home because she was friendly and we knew her.

While she was a good buyer’s agent, she was a terrible listing agent. She priced our home way too high for the market, did zero marketing, and as a result, it took over two years to sell. I finally wised up and found an amazing agent who sold our home within a few months of taking over the listing.

If I’d done my homework from the get-go, our home likely would have sold quickly and at a competitive price. Instead, it languished on the market, and we lost almost $40,000. It was an expensive mistake we’ll never make again. We’re getting ready to sell our current home, and you can bet we’ll be interviewing several agents to find the right one for our situation.

Do your research. Yes, it takes time and effort, but choosing the right agent will pay huge dividends in the long run.

Have you worked with a great (or not-so-great) agent when buying or selling your home? What was your experience like?

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Personal Finance 101: How Tax Brackets Actually Work

Right now, with the confluence of tax season and a lot of public discussion about tax rates going forward, many people are discussing the ins and outs of how taxes work in the United States. Over the last few days, I have seen several people post tax thoughts on social media and on otherwise reputable websites that represent a wildly incorrect view of how tax brackets actually work.

What follows is a simple primer on how income tax brackets work in the United States.

What Are the Current Tax Rates for Single Filers?

As of this writing, the tax rates for single filers in the United States look like this:

10%: $0 to $9,525
12%: $9,526 to $38,700
22%: $38,701 to $82,500
24%: $82,501 to $157,500
32%: $157,501 to $200,000
35%: $200,001 to $500,000
37%: $500,001 or more

The dollar amount listed is a person’s adjusted gross income, which is the amount a person actually earns in a year minus their tax deductions. For many Americans, it’s how much they earn in a year minus the standard deduction, which is $12,000 this year.

So, let’s say you earned $30,000 this year and then took the standard deduction. Your income for the purposes of calculating taxes is $18,000.

We’ll stick with the rates for single filers as an example, just so everything is incredibly clear.

Often, each of those levels is known as a “tax bracket.” So, someone making $120,000 a year might be described as being in the 24% “tax bracket.” However, being in the 24% “tax bracket” does not mean that you’re paying 24% of your income in income taxes. That is a huge misunderstanding.

The Water Fountain Model

The mental model that works best for me is visualizing tax brackets as one of those large fancy tiered water fountains, where the top part of the fountain is small, the next part is a little bigger, and the next part is a little bigger than that, and so on.

With such a fountain, when the top portion fills up with water, it overflows, and the water overflow is caught by the next portion of the fountain. Eventually, that portion overflows, causing the portion below it to start filling with water.

That’s the way income taxes actually work. You start dumping income into the top bracket – the 10% bracket – and that’s the tax rate you pay until that bracket overflows. You keep pouring your income in, but now it goes into the 12% bracket and that’s the rate you pay until that bracket overflows. You keep pouring income in, but now it goes into the 22% bracket and that’s the rate you pay until that bracket overflows, and so on.

Even if you end up dumping money into the 24% or the 35% bracket or whatever, you still have some of your income sitting in that 10% bracket and that 12% bracket, and that’s all you pay for those portions of your income. Just because your income overflowed that lower tax bracket doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to pay more on the portion of your income that was in that bracket.

In other words, you break your income up into pieces that are equal in size to each tax bracket. When you earn more income, all you do is make the piece in the highest tax bracket bigger – you don’t change any of the others. If that piece gets bigger than that bracket, then you start another piece in the next bracket up.

A Real Example

Let’s jump into a real world example here. Let’s say Connie, a single woman, made $100,000. She does her taxes and takes the standard deduction, knocking $12,000 off of her total. She’s taxed on $88,000 of her income.

Here are the relevant rows of that income tax table from earlier in the article:

10%: $0 to $9,525
12%: $9,526 to $38,700
22%: $38,701 to $82,500
24%: $82,501 to $157,500

Many people make the mistake of assuming that Connie will be paying 24% of her income in taxes, but that’s not remotely true. Here’s how it actually works.

On her income up to $9,525, Connie is going to pay 10% in taxes – $952.50. That leaves her with $78,475 in taxable income, but now the 10% bracket is full, so we move up.

On her income between $9,526 and $38,700 – or, in another way of looking at it, the next $29,175 in income she earned that year – Connie is going to pay 12% in taxes. That equals $3,501 in taxes. That leaves her with $49,300 in taxable income, but now the 12% bracket is full, so we move up.

On her income between $38,701 and $82,500 – or, in another way of looking at it, the next $43,800 in income she earned that year – Connie is going to pay 22% in taxes. That equals $9,636 in taxes. That leaves her with $5,500 in taxable income, but now the 22% bracket is full, so we move up.

On her income between $82,501 and $157,500 – or, in another way of looking at it, the next $75,000 in income she earned that year – Connie is going to pay 24% in taxes. However, she isn’t filling up that full bracket. She only has $5,500 of her income in that range. So, her taxes on that last $5,500 is $1,320.

So, her tax total is:
$952.50 from the 10% tax bracket, plus
$3,501 from the 12% tax bracket, plus
$9,636 from the 22% tax bracket, plus
$1,320 from the 24% tax bracket.

The sum total of Connie’s taxes is $15,409.50.

Now, notice that total is not 24% of her income. If she were truly paying 24% of her income in income taxes, her total tax bill would be $24,000. Instead, it’s $15,409.50. Connie is in the 24% tax bracket, but her actual effective tax rate is only 15.4%.

If Connie were to have earned more than $100,000, then all of that additional money would have been taxed at 24%, but that’s not what she’s actually paying on her income.

For example, if Connie had earned $110,000 this year instead of $100,000, her total tax bill would have been $15,409.50 plus $2,400, or $17,809.50. Connie’s effective tax rate would go up a little – she’s now paying $17,809.50 on a total income of $110,000, or 16.2% – but she’s still not paying anywhere near 24% of her income in income taxes.

Even if Connie had a huge increase in salary – bumping her up to $200,000 a year – she would edge into that 32% tax bracket, but her overall tax rate wouldn’t be 32%. Rather, her income tax would be
$952.50 from the 10% tax bracket, plus
$3,501 from the 12% tax bracket, plus
$9,636 from the 22% tax bracket, plus
$18,000 from the 24% tax bracket, plus
$13,600 from the 32% tax bracket.

That would give Connie a total of $41,849.50 in taxes on a $200,000 income, or a 20.9% effective tax rate. Connie might be in the 32% tax bracket, but she’s only paying 20.9% of her income in taxes.

Some Takeaway Thoughts

First of all, the idea that earning more will somehow “cost you money” is foolish. The more you earn, the more you keep. Every single additional dollar that you earn, you’ll keep some large portion of it, regardless of your total earnings.

Many people and many otherwise accurate articles misrepresent this idea. They paint the picture that if you cross the line into the next tax bracket, you’ll suddenly have to pay more taxes on all of your income, so, under this misunderstanding, earning a little more if you’re close to the line can cost you money. That is completely false – earning more money always means more money in your pocket.

What the tax brackets are actually telling you is how much comes out of each dollar that you earn. For the first $9,525 you earn, only 10% comes out of each dollar no matter how much you make in total. That statement remains true regardless of whether you’re earning $15,000 a year or $1.5 million a year. For the next $29,175 you earn, only 12% comes out of each dollar no matter how much you make in total. Again, this statement remains true regardless of whether you’re earning $15,000 a year or $1.5 million a year.

Even if the highest income tax bracket were paying a rate of 70%, a proposal that’s making the rounds these days, you would still only pay a 10% tax rate on the first $9,525 you earn, regardless of how much you earned in total. You just pay the 10% on that part, then forget about it and only worry about taxes on the rest.

Another thing worth noting: the average American household income is around $70,000. If you’re a single person making $70,000 a year, you’re only in the 22% tax bracket and your effective income tax rate is somewhere around 11%. Most tax changes will have very little impact on your life.

If you’re earning $70,000 a year and the 22% tax bracket became a 25% tax bracket, it would literally only add $939 to your total tax bill. That would be about $18 from every paycheck, assuming you’re paid every other week. It would not eat 3% of your income – rather, it would eat about 1.3%.

Thus, I would encourage most Americans to not worry too much about changes to income tax laws. The only changes that will affect most Americans are adjustments to the lowest tax brackets, and those rarely change at all. They might dip up or down a percentage point or two, but those amount to just a few bucks in the paycheck of the average American household.

A final note: be very wary of absurd financial claims that don’t pass the common sense test. If someone is claiming that earning more money will actually somehow cost you money, that should fail the common sense test – and it does, because that’s not how tax brackets work. If someone is claiming that a tax change will cost you thousands, it might if you’ve got a huge income, but for most Americans, tax changes rarely have that much of an impact – it’s usually in the realm of a few dollars in your paycheck.

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Why NewRetirement is my favorite retirement planning tool

Over the past week, I’ve shared two terrific retirement planning tools. First, I explored the pros and cons of Personal Capital. Next, I looked at OnTrajectory, which is the best traditional retirement calculator I’ve found.

NewRetirement logoToday, I want to talk about NewRetirement. Since I discovered it two years ago, NewRetirement has become my favorite tool for retirement planning.

I like NewRetirement because it offers amazing levels of customization. Plus, it explains its assumptions and offers ample information about every subject it tackles. And it does all of this without ever becoming overwhelming. It’s comprehensive and customizable, yet clear. Most importantly, NewRetirement is more than just a retirement calculator. When I say it’s a retirement planning tool, I mean that.

NewRetirement offers three levels of service.

  • Planner, the basic level of service — and the bulk of what I’ll review in this article — is free. You do need to provide an email address, but once you do, you’re able to create a personalized retirement plan. (I’ll show you what that’s like in a moment.)
  • If you like the basic level of service and want more, you can upgrade to PlannerPlus for $6/month. This gives you access to advanced retirement planning tools, more detailed reports, and the ability to print your plan. (NewRetirement is offering GRS readers a 30-day free trial of PlannerPlus, by the way.)
  • At the highest level, you can pay NewRetirement for personalized advice from a Certified Financial Planner. Unlike Personal Capital, NewRetirement won’t pester you over and over to use their advisors. But the service is available for those who need it.

As I mentioned, I’ve been using NewRetirement for a couple of years. In order to give an honest and complete review today, I created a second NewRetirement account and walked through the process of setting everything up from scratch. Do I still like the tool as much as I did in April 2017? Let’s find out.

Disclosure: Before I begin this review, I need to make one thing clear: I am an investor in NewRetirement. When I first found the service two years ago, I liked it so much that I started an email conversation with founder Stephen Chen. That grew into a friendship. Since then, I’ve invested $50,000 of my own money into the company. (Also, I was the first-ever guest on the NewRetirement podcast!) Having said that, I’ve done my best to provide an honest review here.

Getting Started with NewRetirement

After you register for an account, NewRetirement starts by asking you a series of basic questions. (You can opt to by-pass these questions if all you want is a simple retirement calculator.) Here’s how I answered using my current financial state.

NewRetirement setup (#1)

NewRetirement setup (#2)

NewRetirement setup (#3)

When you’ve finished entering your basic info, you’re presented with the NewRetirement dashboard. It’s here that you first get a hint that this retirement tool is more robust than any of the others. Front and center is a progress bar…and because you’re new, that progress bar is nearly empty.

NewRetirement setup progress

Even if you didn’t flesh out your initial data, NewRetirement would give you some useful info. (Meaning that if you read this article and want to look at what the tool does, you can click over and get a quick overview of your financial future in just a couple of minutes.)

The fun really starts, however, when you dig deeper into NewRetirement.

Digging Deeper into NewRetirement

As the dashboard implies, NewRetirement features 33 different retirement planning sections divided into ten broad categories.

In each section, you can enter data and/or change assumptions. If all of this were dumped on the user at once, it’d be overwhelming. Fortunately, it’s a step-by-step process that never gets out of control.

The ten main categories that NewRetirement tackles are:

  • Basic profile and goals, including your age, life expectancy, desired legacy, and plans for retirement. (The latter is a written statement. I love it! Most retirement tools are all about the numbers. NewRetirement digs deeper.)
  • Social Security, where you can enter your estimated retirement benefits and start date. If you don’t know what to expect from Social Security, NewRetirement links to the official government website and a Social Security calculator.
  • Work and other income. In this section, you can specify how much you earn from your job, but also input money from dividends, interest, rental properties, and other sources.
  • Annuities and pensions. If you have access to an annuity or pension, you can enter your info in this section. I won’t have either of these, so I skip this section.
  • Savings and assets. This is a large section in which you list your tax-advantaged retirement accounts, regular investment accounts, bank accounts, large assets, and ongoing retirement contributions. Under “other assets”, I included the various businesses I own pieces of (including NewRetirement itself!). I did not, however, value this website.
  • Expenses and inflation. Here you can choose both an optimistic inflation rate and a pessimistic inflation rate. You can also enter any known large one-time expenses in your future, such as buying a home, sending the kids to college, or charitable giving. You can tell NewRetirement which account the expense will come from, the age it will occur, and the reason for the expense. Pretty cool. Lastly, if you think your core spending will change over time, you can specify that here. Right now, for instance, I think I’m spending $5000 per month. If I think that spending will drop to $3500 per month when I turn 55, I could model that in this section.
  • Housing, where you enter the current value of your home, the balance on your mortgage, and project future home appreciation. Another cool feature: You can model future changes to housing or mortgages. If I think that Kim and I will sell our current home and downsize in a decade, for instance, NewRetirement will let me do that. (Minor quibble: When I’m projecting my future, I assume that we’ll sell this house in ten years and then rent a place. NewRetirement won’t let me explicitly model that. My workaround is to model buying a new home for $1, then bumping my monthly expenses by $1500 to compensate for rent.)

NewRetirement downsizing

  • Medical and long-term care. As you probably know, medical costs are one of the fastest-rising yet most oft-overlooked chunks of the average American budget. NewRetirement includes an entire section for modeling current and future health-care costs.
  • Debts. NewRetirement allows you to list all of your current debt (plus links to advice on how to manage your debt, if it’s problematic).
  • Estate planning. This section doesn’t have a lot of resources but offers a bit of information. Plus, it lets you track whether you’ve completed important estate-planning documents.

Nearly every step of the way, NewRetirement offers you the ability to learn more about relevant topics. For instance, when you enter your expected longevity, NewRetirement links you to a life-expectancy calculator and suggests five related articles.

NewRetirement funding goal

As you tick boxes indicating that you’d like to learn more about a particular topic, relevant articles are added to the “info and opportunities” tab in the main menu. This is an excellent, useful feature, something I’ve never seen in another retirement tool.

NewRetirement article list

Forecasting Your Future with NewRetirement

Yesterday, it took me about an hour to work through all 33 retirement planning sections in the NewRetirement tool. I’ve been entering the same info into retirement planning tools for two weeks now, so I know where to find it. If this is your first time, it might take you a bit longer.

When I’d finished, the progress bar in the dashboard was no longer empty. It looked like this:

NewRetirement full progress

The NewRetirement dashboard contains an Analysis section that’s available from the start. After you’ve entered your basic data during registration, you can use this section to look at a forecast for your financial future. But the analysis becomes more useful after you’ve entered more complete information.

By default, the dashboard displays your Savings Over Time graph (which is very similar to the graph that OnTrajectory keeps front and center at all times).

NewRetirement savings over time

There’s a “key metrics” view where you can see the core basic parameters and some of the ramifications.

NewRetirement key metrics

Or, if you want more info, you can access a handful of other charts.

NewRetirement additional charts

I’m a fan of the Savings Timeline chart because it gives me a quick look at my current financial trajectory.

NewRetirement savings timeline

And as much as I preach that you should not compare yourself to others, I like the “compare yourself to others” tool haha. (From my past articles about NewRetirement, I know that other GRS readers like this comparison tool too.)

NewRetirement compare yourself

Just for kicks, here’s the same comparison view from when I first reviewed NewRetirement in 2017:

NewRetirement household comparison

As you can see, there’s plenty available with the free version of NewRetirement. In fact, it’s this free tool that made me rave about the company two years ago. I still love it.

I do think OnTrajectory is a strong competitor for NewRetirement. That’s a good thing. For many people, OnTrajectory may be a better choice. But the features I’ve reviewed so far in this article are free at NewRetirement. OnTrajectory costs money after the first two weeks of use.

In the future, I intend to promote both OnTrajectory and NewRetirement. They’re both excellent. (If you haven’t read it yet, here’s my OnTrajectory review.)

PlannerPlus at NewRetirement

As you can see, the free version of NewRetirement packs quite a punch. Without paying a penny, you can do more with it than with 95% of the other retirement planning tools on the web. But what if you want more?

For $6/month, you can upgrade from the entry-level NewRetirement service to what the company calls PlannerPlus. Doing so unlocks another menu of options.

NewRetirement planner plus

Behind the scenes, NewRetirement takes the data you’ve entered, crunches it based on the tool’s assumptions — investment returns, inflation, health-care spending, etc. — then creates a series of data tables projecting your future financial health. In order to make these raw numbers more accessible, PlannerPlus provides its “Plan Inspector”, which lets you browse dynamic charts to explore your retirement plan.

Here, for instance, I’m looking at how even with optimistic assumptions, my savings will only last until I’m age 75.

NewRetirement plan inspector

With the free version of NewRetirement, you can enter as many expenses as you want, but nothing about the process is guided. It’s all sort of free-form. For many folks, that’s fine. Others want more help, though. For these people, PlannerPlus includes an advanced budgeting tool.

NewRetirement budgeter features

The budgeting tool in PlannerPlus allows users to model expenses at a far more detailed level. For instance, I could use my existing data from Quicken to enter actual expenses for almost everything.

NewRetirement budgeter detail

Most retirement calculators ask for just a couple of Big Picture numbers. The good ones let you explore some level of detail. Like OnTrajectory, NewRetirement allows you to get as detailed as you want so that you can explore a variety of what-if scenarios.

With the PlannerPlus upgrade, you can also customize the software’s alerts. Do you want NewRetirement to pester you when you use faulty assumptions? When your data is incomplete? When you could take steps to improve your future financial health? If so, do nothing. But if the alerts bug you, you can choose which ones to dismiss.

PlannerPlus also allows you to print your plan and/or export it to a spreadsheet.

The Bottom Line

NewRetirement isn’t perfect and I don’t want to pretend that it is. As I worked through the tool yesterday, I encountered a couple of minor bugs. Sometimes I couldn’t figure out how to model my plans for the future. (How do I convey that I think we might sell the house in ten years, then find a place to rent?) For as much reporting as NewRetirement currently offers, it could always offer more. (We money nerds love to have lots of reports and graphs.)

That said, the company is very responsive to bug reports. They update the software regularly, so when users report issues, changes can usually be made within a few days.

Plus, NewRetirement is a work in progress. The company is constantly working to improve things, to give more value to their customers — even the folks who use the free level of service. Every month, founder Stephen Chen sends me a list of coming upgrades and his plans for the company’s future. Much has changed in the two years since I first discovered the tool. Much will change in the years to come.

Ultimately, NewRetirement isn’t a retirement calculator; it’s a retirement planning tool. To me, that’s like the difference between a pocket calculator and a spreadsheet. Each has its uses, no doubt. Sometimes, you want the pocket calculator. But sometimes, you want the more powerful option.

If all you’re after is a quick overview of your financial future, you can use the basic retirement calculator at NewRetirement — or one of the dozens of other retirement calculators on the web. (Use OnTrajectory if you want a robust retirement calculator.)

But if you want to actually formulate a retirement plan, if you want a retirement planning tool that will actually guide you through the process, NewRetirement is an outstanding choice.

NewRetirement is offering Get Rich Slowly readers a free 30-day trial of PlannerPlus. You do have to enter your credit card info to start the trial, but if you decide that the service isn’t right for you, you can cancel without hassle. NewRetirement isn’t a scammy company. They want you to be happy.

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.

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8 Valentine’s Day Gifts for Him

Photo by BlueSkyImage /

Valentine’s Day is nearly here. Have you picked out the perfect present for your special someone?

From inscribed guitar picks to a couple’s journal and a rugged cellphone docking station, we’ve rounded up eight great gifts that cost only $20 on average and are guaranteed to make his day.

Please note that the prices you see below are almost always what you will find at Amazon, but that small variations do occur.

Do you have more great Valentine’s Day gifts for him? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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How I Bought a Home in Oakland

Sadie Fenton, her partner, James Edmondson, and their baby girl, Loretta, huddle in their Oakland home.

In this series, NerdWallet interviews new homeowners across the country about their unique homebuying journeys and the financial decisions that helped them along the way. (Do you want to share your first-time homebuying story? Reach out to [email protected])

As San Francisco’s cool, hip neighbor, Oakland may offer slightly more affordable home prices, but they’re still jaw-droppingly expensive by most standards. According to Zillow, the median home value is $741,900.

James Edmondson, 31, who runs a type design company, and Sadie Fenton, 35, a restaurant server, experienced the competitive — and often disheartening — housing market while scrambling to buy a home in Oakland last year before their daughter was born.

Edmondson shared the intense ups and downs of their homebuying journey, from exceeding their initial budget by more than $300,000 to finally landing their two-bedroom home in the Glenview area of Oakland. (This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

What brought you to Oakland?

Sadie was born in San Francisco, and I was born near San Luis Obispo, California. I moved to San Francisco when I was 19 and eventually transferred to an art school in Oakland.

» MORE: Compare the costs of living in different cities

Why did you decide to buy a home in Oakland?

We had been renting in San Francisco and generally felt that landlords could throw us out at a certain point. That uncertainty and dependence on landlords became less and less attractive. Some people say that renting is like throwing away money, which I don’t believe — you’re paying for a valuable service — but we were thinking about starting a family and wanted to give homebuying a shot.

We checked out other areas in the East Bay, like San Leandro, El Cerrito and Berkeley, but I really wanted to live in Oakland again.

What were you looking for in a home?

I wanted a garage space, and Sadie wanted a formal dining area. We wanted a good neighborhood and to be close to shops and restaurants. I didn’t want to leave the city vibe altogether. We were flexible on the rest because we knew we had incredible competition in this market, especially at the time we were looking.

What was your homebuying journey like?

We called our real estate agent at the beginning of 2018. We didn’t search very seriously the first month, but Sadie was pregnant and our due date was May 23, so that was our deadline. It ended up taking us around three months to find a home.

We knew we weren’t going to get a great deal; the competition was so thick. It didn’t seem like we were going to stumble on some bargain. We looked at close to 20 houses in person and spent so much time browsing on Redfin — it took up our whole lives. We put in an offer on one house in San Leandro, but we weren’t even close to getting it. The same thing happened for another house in San Leandro. We were off by $100K. Losing those two offers was a reality check. We needed to be real with ourselves and understand that this was a ludicrous market.

We ended up finding a two-bedroom in a neighborhood with a school we liked and at a price point we thought we could work with, and moved in on March 20, 2018. I think we were successful with this house and beat out five other offers because we bid almost 40% over the asking price.

How did you know that the home was the one for you?

It wasn’t that romantic or obvious. We loved the house, but we loved a lot of the houses we checked out. Our house is busted and disgusting from the outside, but the inside is great. It’s a classic, 100-year-old Craftsman with cool details and built-ins. The kitchen is super dated and has an old-school oven range. It feels very cozy and warm; that was important to us.

James Edmondson with his daughter, Loretta. Edmondson and his partner, Sadie Fenton, chose a 100-year-old Craftsman in the Glenview area of Oakland.

What’s your approach to finance, and how did you save for the home?

I’m a saver. Coming into this, I had a healthy retirement account and started saving when I was 19, but I’ve since learned about the FIRE movement, and now my goal is to be mortgage-free in 10 years. I don’t care about clothes, cars, eating out or going to bars, so that helped.

Our budget was initially in the mid-$600,000 range, but everything was 10-20% over asking price. We were faced with the reality that we’d have to stretch to make it work. It eventually went all the way up to $982,000, which is what we ended up paying. Sadie and I both had savings, but we also had to borrow $55,000 from my older brothers, which ended up being around 18% of the down payment. We put down around $300K, which we had saved up.

» MORE: How much house can you afford?

Were there any surprises or challenges? Would you have done anything differently?

The hardest part was realizing what a full-time job it is to go through the escrow process, secure the mortgage and fill out all the paperwork. It was insanely stressful. If it was just me, there’s a strong possibility I would have done a tiny home or moved to a less expensive area. It’s not necessary for everyone to go the traditional route of buying a home. But when I consider Sadie and our child, it was the best-case scenario.

What advice would you give to someone considering moving to Oakland?

Keep expenses low by thinking about what truly matters to you. Also have a lot of compassion for yourself. It was easy to feel stupid and stressed out during the process. I thought we were in over our heads. It’s healthy to remind yourself that buying a home is something that you will do very few times in your life.

Oakland really varies. There are $4 million houses just a couple streets over from neighborhoods that are really gnarly — where you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night.

Advice for first-time home buyers

Deidre Joyner, the real estate agent who helped Edmondson and Fenton purchase their home, shared a few tips for first-time home buyers in Oakland:

Find a local mortgage lender. Joyner says a local mortgage lender can offer more flexibility and help you stand out from other offers. “If all things are equal, a locally known real estate agent and mortgage lender can make a difference. They often can work non-banking hours and are easier to reach on a weekend.”

Expect to spend a lot… “Unfortunately, prices have skyrocketed in the last six years. This is a very sought-out community, with its close proximity to San Francisco and good weather,” Joyner says. “I see people spending between $750,000 and $950,000, and that’s not including notoriously expensive Oakland neighborhoods like Rockridge or Crocker Highlands.”

…but the market may be shifting. Joyner says buyers are gradually being more selective. “There was a frenzy of people getting in and buying homes that weren’t that great, but now my clients are thinking more critically and have a more discriminating mindset. They won’t just buy anything,” she says.

Photos by Jonathan Rivera.

More homebuying stories:

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Purchase a Sam’s Club membership for $45, Get $45 back to spend in-store!

(Note: The links in this post are affiliate links, and we will be compensated when you make a purchase by clicking through our links. Read our disclosure policy here.)

Reminder: This HOT deal is still available!!

Whoa!! If you’ve been wanting to buy a Sam’s Club membership, this is a GREAT deal!

Right now when you purchase a Sam’s Club membership for $45, you’ll receive $45 back to spend on almost anything in-store!

(The $45 rebate can not be used to purchase alcoholic beverages, tobacco, milk, fuel, prescriptions, stamps, photos, or gift cards.)

Note: When you sign up for this deal, you’ll be signed up for annual auto-renew. If you don’t want to auto-renew your membership after a year, just be sure to log in to your account and cancel your auto-renewal before your first year’s membership ends!

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Here’s How This New York Woman Lowered Her Winter Electric Bill

Oh, the weather outside is frightful… yeah, that about sums it up.

It’s winter, and it’s cold outside. To keep it warm inside means your energy bill is going to skyrocket. Plus, you’re burning energy, and that’s not good for the environment.

Why not do something about that? Rebecca Rindler did. She saved $120 during a brutal New York winter last year while using energy that is environmentally friendly. Here’s how she did it.

Save Money (While Helping the Environment!)

You can use your energy bill to support renewable energy — no matter where you live.

With renewable energy company Arcadia Power, you can offset your monthly energy consumption with 100% renewable sources in about two minutes.

Rebecca Rindler, a financial services worker living in Brooklyn, New York, wanted to be able to choose where her power came from and know that she was helping promote clean, renewable energy.

Then she found a solution. Her cousin’s husband is one of the founders of renewable energy company Arcadia Power, which helps people support clean energy, no matter which company provides their power.

“I really liked Arcadia, because they use renewable energy sources, so they’re a way to improve sustainability,” she says. “That’s something that matters to me.”

Here’s where things got really interesting for Rindler. While she was feeling good about helping to fund renewable energy sources, she was about to get more good news from Arcadia.

The company signer her up for its price alerts program, which searched for providers that could supply her power at a lower cost. When they found one, they signed her up, and Rindler started paying less for her electricity.

“Basically, I did nothing,” she says. “I got this email, and then a few months later, I got another email that said, ‘Good news! We found a better rate.’”

You, too, can help fuel your home energy with renewable sources — and possibly save some money, too, just by signing up with Arcadia.

And, because you’re such a good person, the company will throw in a free $20 Amazon gift card.

You can sign up to qualify for your free gift card in about two minutes.

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.

The Penny Hoarder Promise: We provide accurate, reliable information. Here’s why you can trust us and how we make money.

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The Pantry Challenge – What It Is & How to Save Money With It

Here’s a story that might sound familiar to you. It’s the last week of the month, and you only have a few bucks left to buy food. You’ve looked for ways to stretch your grocery dollars, but you just can’t see how you can get a whole week’s worth of meals out of them. You check the pantry to see what else you have to work with, but as far as you can tell, it’s just full of miscellaneous junk — a half-empty sleeves of crackers, a few odd cans of beans, a bag of lentils you bought for some reason you don’t even remember. There’s no way you can turn that stuff into dinner, is there?

Actually, there probably is. And a pantry challenge could help you figure out how.

The pantry challenge is the brainchild of Jessica Fisher, who runs the website Good Cheap Eats. The idea is to buy no groceries for a fixed amount of time — anywhere from a week to a month — and make all your meals entirely out of what you already have in the pantry and freezer. It offers a way to clear the clutter out of the pantry, avoid food waste, and save money, all at the same time.

Benefits of a Pantry Challenge

Save Money On Groceries Calculator Food

A pantry challenge serves many different purposes. The benefits of staying away from the supermarket for a month include:

1. You Save Money on Food

It stands to reason that for every week you don’t buy any groceries, you’ll save a week’s worth of grocery money. Becky Worley of ABC says doing a two-week challenge with Fisher’s help saved her around $200, and various contributors on Good Cheap Eats say they’ve saved anywhere from $50 to $400 per month. Fisher says her yearly pantry challenge helps “even out” her grocery spending for the year, so she can afford to splurge when she needs to.

2. It Avoids Food Waste

Some people argue that a pantry challenge can’t really save you money because you’ve already spent money on what’s in your pantry. That’s true, but on the other hand, that money is wasted if you don’t actually use the food. Let’s face it; it’s a rare shopper who never buys anything at the store that ends up languishing at the back of the pantry.

If you don’t see that as a problem, consider this: According to Feeding America, about 70 billion pounds of food is wasted in America every year, even as millions of people go hungry. By clearing out the unused food in your pantry, you’re doing your own small part to fix this problem.

3. It Puts Your Stockpile to Use

Many extreme couponers have large stockpiles of food they’ve acquired for little or no money. They often object to the idea of a pantry challenge because they’ll use up all these bargains. However, they’re looking at it backward. The whole point of buying all that cheap food was to eat it; if it just sits there in the pantry, it does them no good. This makes the pantry challenge an opportunity to make sure all those stockpiled groceries get used and to free up storage space for new bargains.

4. It Saves Time on Shopping

Buying groceries takes time as well as money. According to a 2016 paper from the Time Use Institute, the average trip to the supermarket takes 43 minutes. That means a one-month pantry challenge could save you three hours of shopping time, which you can devote to anything you’d rather do — for work or fun.

5. It Cleans Out Clutter

If you’re like most people, you have food lurking at the back of your fridge or cupboards that you don’t even know about. For example, when Worley dug through her pantry for the challenge, she found three open bags of flour, 27 servings of miso soup, and four bags of quinoa, which she doesn’t even like very much. Clearing all this unused stuff off your pantry shelves makes it easier to see the food you have left, so you can find what you want when you want it.

6. It Teaches You What Your Family Likes

A pantry challenge can force you to try new recipes and cook with ingredients you don’t use most of the time. If your family likes these new dishes, that’s great; you can file them away as useful recipes to make in the future. However, even if your family hates some of the things you make, that’s still useful information. It will tell you which ingredients to avoid in future, so you won’t waste time cooking dishes no one will eat. For instance, a couple of commenters at Good Cheap Eats said the challenge had taught them to stop spending money on fancy products, such as exotic grains, and stick to the basics their family actually eats.

7. It Improves Your Skills

One of the biggest advantages of a pantry challenge is that it helps you sharpen all kinds of skills, including cooking, meal planning, and managing resources. For instance, a couple of commenters on Good Cheap Eats said the challenge had convinced them to try baking their own bread. Another commenter said all the cheap meals she made during the challenge convinced her that her family could get by on a smaller food budget, saving them close to $2,500 a year.

8. It Cultivates Gratitude

In a piece for Kitchn, Fisher says many people object to the pantry challenge because it makes them feel poor. However, she says that for her, it does exactly the opposite. Reminding herself what it’s like to get by with less makes her feel grateful for what she has. Several commenters on her site have also said the challenge helped them realize just how lucky they were.

9. It’s Fun

Finally, a pantry challenge can be fun. Trying to make a meal out of a can of tuna, a box of oats, and a jar of peppers is kind of like solving a puzzle. It forces you to be creative, and it can give you a real sense of pride when you successfully turn what looks like a whole lot of nothing into a satisfying dinner.

How to Do a Pantry Challenge

Fully Stocked Pantry Disorgaized Cans Bags Boxes

A pantry challenge takes planning. Since you’ll only have a limited amount of food to work with, you’ll have to know exactly what you have and what you can make from it. Here are some steps that Fisher and other people who have taken the pantry challenge recommend to make yours a success.

1. Set Your Ground Rules

Before you can get started on your pantry challenge, you need to know what the limits of the challenge will be. The first thing to decide on is a time frame. Fisher, who does this challenge every year, usually plans hers to last two to four weeks. However, if you’ve never done the challenge before, you might decide to do it for just one week to start.

Next, decide on the rules for exactly what you are and aren’t allowed to eat during the challenge. In her ABC interview, Fisher strongly urges participants to include the contents of their fridge and freezer, as well as their pantry. That way, “it doesn’t feel like such a hardship,” she explains. Also, if you have a home vegetable garden, by all means, continue to pick and eat what it produces; there’s no point in letting that fresh produce go to waste.

You should also decide whether you’ll avoid buying any new groceries at all during the challenge or just limit the amount you purchase. In her Kitchn article, Fisher says she doesn’t completely give up buying groceries during this period; instead, she gives herself a small budget to buy milk and fresh produce so her family doesn’t have to live entirely on packaged food.

By contrast, “Tiffany” from Don’t Waste the Crumbs says she never sets foot in a grocery store during the challenge. This forces her to clean out her pantry completely, “think outside the box” when creating recipes, and be more mindful of her habits. If going entirely without groceries is too harsh for you, she suggests a compromise: Buy nothing at all for the first week, then set yourself a strict limit of $10 per week for new food after that.

2. Take Inventory

After establishing your ground rules, the next step is to make a complete inventory of everything you currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. This step is crucial. Since you’ll be making all your meals from this food for the next week or more, you need to know exactly what you have to work with.

Be thorough. Open up every cupboard, even those above the fridge that you almost never look into. Fish out every scrap of food you can find and write it down on a list, from the five pounds of chicken in the freezer to the lone packet of instant soup crumpled in the back corner of the pantry. After all, part of the point of the challenge is to use up all those odds and ends, and you can’t use them if you can’t find them.

If it helps, you can turn this part of the challenge into a game. The goal is to find as much food as possible that you didn’t remember you had. If you have kids, you can probably persuade them to play along with you. With their little hands, they can reach into the smallest crevices and possibly unearth some “treasures” you’ve overlooked.

3. Plan Meals

Once you have a complete list of all the food in your home, you can start figuring out what to make from it. Even if you don’t normally plan your meals ahead of time, it’s essential to do it now. Otherwise, you could find yourself with five days left to go and nothing in the house but half a box of oatmeal, two packets of microwave popcorn, and 17 different sauces.

Here are some tips cooking experts recommend for making the most of what you have in your pantry:

  • Conserve Your Resources. Since food is now a limited resource for you, it’s important to use it wisely. If you have only four eggs in the fridge, think twice before blowing them all on an omelet on the first day of the challenge. Maybe it would make more sense to stretch them out by using them to make pancakes or muffins.
  • Plan Two to Three Days Ahead. Cooking from scratch with foods from your pantry often involves extra prep time. For example, if you want to make a meal of dry beans, you need several hours to soak them and cook them. To make sure you allow yourself enough time, “Tiffany” recommends planning out every meal you and your family will eat — including snacks and desserts — for the next two to three days. After that, you can reassess what you have left in your food stores and make a new plan for the next few days.
  • Search for Recipes. For every item on your food inventory, search your cookbook collection and the Web for recipes to use it in. Many recipe sites, such as, have a feature that lets you enter the name of a specific ingredient or group of ingredients and look for recipes that use it. It’s a great way to find uses for those odds and ends you uncover in the back of the fridge, such as a half-jar of chutney. It can also be helpful for finding new ways to use up more familiar ingredients. For instance, Worley found several cans of tuna fish in her pantry, but all she knew how to make from them was tuna sandwiches. Fisher pointed out that she could combine them with her jars of capers and olives to make pasta puttanesca, and Worley uncovered a great recipe for it online.
  • Use Perishables First. At the start of your challenge, focus on using up the foods in your fridge that will go bad if you don’t get to them right away, such as greens and fresh milk. If you’re not sure how long your food will last, consult the food storage guide from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • Sweat the Small Stuff. Tiny portions of this and that, like a tablespoon of frozen peas left at the bottom of a bag, can be particularly difficult to use up. Make a point of focusing on these odd bits when planning your meals so they don’t go to waste. A quick online search will yield lots of tricks for using up leftovers, like tossing all vegetable scraps into a soup or crumbling crackers and stale bread to make homemade bread crumbs for a casserole topping. If you have little bits of ingredients that are only slightly different, such as half-empty boxes of mismatched pasta or dribs and drabs of similar-tasting sauces, you can simply combine them in one dish.
  • Substitute Ingredients. If a recipe calls for something you don’t have on hand, consider whether you could substitute something you do have. For instance, if you normally use cream of mushroom soup in your tuna casserole, but you’re all out, think about whether cream of celery or cream of broccoli could work instead. You can find other lists of food substitutions online.
  • Think Outside the Box. If you think of dinner as a hunk of meat on a plate with sides of vegetable and starch, it’s time to broaden your horizons. Dinner can be a one-pot meal, a hearty soup or salad, or just a plate of sandwiches. Foods you think of as breakfast dishes, like omelets or pancakes, can also be dinner fare. Worley tried this as part of her challenge, and her kids loved it.
  • Don’t Use What You Hate. It’s possible your pantry holds a few ingredients that you tried once and absolutely hated. Using these up could mean choking down meal after meal of something you can’t stand, and you’re likely to get so frustrated that you quit the challenge early. Giving these unwanted foods to a friend, donating them to a food bank, or tossing them in the compost bin is a better way to get some real use out of them.

4. Learn From Others

If you find yourself stuck for ideas during your pantry challenge, it can help to talk to other people who have done it before. Fisher sells an e-book all about the pantry challenge on her website for $12, but if you’d rather not spend the money, you can consult her free archived articles about the challenge. You can also sign up to receive emails during her pantry challenge months with tips and tricks for doing your own.

While you’re reading through articles on Good Cheap Eats and other sites, check out the comments below each article. Lots of people have used this space to share their own experiences, including both their triumphs and the problems they ran into. You can post your own comments here to ask questions and get feedback from the community, or to share strategies you’ve discovered that could be helpful to others.

What to Cook During a Pantry Challenge

Cooking Soup Vegetables Beans Chili Stew

On her pantry challenge tips page, Fisher mentions several meals that are useful for disposing of leftover food. Some are specific recipes, while others are general ideas. Her suggestions include:

  • Soups. According to Fisher, “Almost anything can be made into soup.” To illustrate this point, she has a flexible recipe called Stone Soup, based on the children’s story about a traveler who feeds a whole village by tricking the villagers into adding their hoarded food scraps to a “magic” soup pot. This recipe calls for a few specific ingredients, but she encourages you to “tweak” it to include any combination of broth, veggies, starch, meat, and beans you have on hand. Other soup recipes you can modify to fit your particular needs include chili and minestrone.
  • Baked Goods. If your pantry contains a bag of flour and some leavening, this opens up lots of food options for your pantry challenge. You can bake bread or biscuits to accompany soup, make your own pizza crust and top it with whatever you have in the fridge, or make pancakes or waffles with either sweet or savory toppings. You can also bake cakes or cookies for dessert, which Fisher says “makes any odd meal go down better.” She offers a recipe called Mix and Match Muffins that you can make with any type of flavoring, including nuts, chocolate, and fruit.
  • Meatless Meals. Unless you have a lot of meat stored in your freezer, you won’t make it through the pantry challenge without eating at least a few meatless meals. Instead of feeling deprived by this, you can look at it as a chance to test-drive a vegetarian diet, which is generally cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally friendly than a meat-based one. By discovering vegetarian meals you like, you can enjoy these benefits on a regular basis when the challenge is over. Some meatless meals to try include beans and rice, omelets, veggie pizza, and burritos. Fisher has recipes for all of these on her site, and you can find numerous others with a simple online search.
  • Meat-Light Meals. If you can’t face the idea of eating completely vegetarian for weeks on end, look for recipes that can stretch the meat you have so it will last longer. For instance, you can add small bits of meat to soup, stir-fry, or tacos. If you have recipes that call for ground beef, such as lasagna or chili, Fisher suggests cutting the meat by half and bulking up the dish by adding extra rice, potatoes, or beans.
  • Leftover Concoctions. Finally, Fisher has several suggestions for turning leftovers into new dishes. In addition to her Stone Soup recipe, she proposes omelets, fried rice, pizza, sandwiches or wraps, hearty salads, quesadillas, pot pie, burritos, and pasta. You can find recipes for all of these on her site and many other cooking sites. A few other flexible recipes for using up leftover scraps include quiche, frittata, casseroles, and kabobs.

Final Word

A pantry challenge offers more than just one-time benefits. It can become a regular tool in your frugal-living toolkit that you can pick up again whenever your pantry is a little too full and your wallet a little too empty. Fisher says she does a challenge once or twice a year as “kitchen discipline.”

Better still, the challenge can be a chance to develop new habits that continue to help you long after the week or month is over. After a few weeks of cooking from scratch, using up leftovers, and keeping a sharp eye on what you have in your pantry and freezer, you’re likely to find yourself continuing to do these things even after you start grocery shopping again. You’ll continue to spend less money and waste less food; you just won’t have to challenge yourself as much to do it.

Have you ever done a pantry challenge? How did it work out for you?

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Keeping Food Costs Down With Picky Eaters at Home

Mary writes in:

Trying to follow your food strategies but I have a very picky 6 year old and a picky 2 year old at our dinner table. They refuse to eat most things that are put in front of them and insist usually on a certain kind of mac and cheese that’s not the cheapest. Thoughts?

When our children were younger, they were somewhat picky, though they grew out of that pickiness over time.

Our strategy for picky eating children was to simply prepare and serve the meal before bringing them to the table, which meant that they could decide for themselves whether to eat what was before them. This eliminated the sense that they could dictate what they were served at meal time. Since the food was already on their plate when they sat down, they lost that sense that they could dictate what was being prepared, which helped a lot.

Another strategy we adopted was to not worry too much about how much they ate at meal times. If they didn’t eat, it was okay; they would eat when they were hungry.

Of course, that often meant that they were snacking, so we intentionally kept healthy snacks within their reach and unhealthy snacks way out of their reach. The fruit bowl was easily accessible, as were the bananas. The cookies? Not so much.

We would sometimes have meals that they loved, but most of the time, we prepared typical meals bought with low-cost ingredients. We did not let their tastes dictate our meal plan. What dictated our meal plan was low cost and healthiness.

Another strategy we found that worked well was asking that they simply eat one “real bite” of anything that they were served. That way, they could decide for themselves if it was good or not. If they ate a real bite, chewed it up, and swallowed it, we wouldn’t ask them to eat any more if they didn’t like it.

In short, part of our success with having a variety of foods at home when the kids were little was to simply find subtle ways to nip their complaints in the bud before the complaining ever had a chance to begin. If supper is already on their plate before they even think about it or get to the table, there’s not much they can really do about it. If we only ask them to eat one bite, it’s not that big of a deal – it seems far less cataclysmic than having to eat a big pile of some weird food.

As our kids got older, we gradually realized that just because we were having dinner didn’t mean that the kids were hungry right then. Often, most of the disagreements about food came from the fact that they weren’t actually hungry at all when they were being plopped down at the table and told to eat, so they’d complain about any food that wasn’t something they loved. You can’t expect a kid to be hungry when you want them to be hungry, after all, and forcing them to stay at the table under the idea that they’ll eat someday creates unnecessary conflict. Staying at the dinner table when they’re older is another matter, as you’re teaching polite behavior in society, but that’s not a useful lesson to a two-year-old.

So, here’s what I’d recommend if I were you.

First of all, I’d follow The Simple Dollar’s usual recommended meal preparation strategy. It goes like this:

Step 1: Get a grocery store flyer.
Step 2: Find sales on fresh ingredients.
Step 3: Do some recipe research.
Step 4: Create a week-long meal plan.
Step 5: Make a shopping list from the meal plan.
Step 6: Go grocery shopping – and stick to your list.

Our meal planning starts with grabbing a grocery store flyer from which we identify items that are on sale. We then base our meal plan for the week on those on-sale items and then prepare a grocery list from that meal plan (which means the grocery list is automatically full of on-sale items), after which we just go to the store and stick to the list.

As you’re following that plan, you should, of course, keep what your family likes in mind, but that doesn’t mean it has to dictate all of your meals. Naturally, if you see some of the ingredients of a meal that your children love and they’re on sale, you should pick those up. However, that shouldn’t dictate your full meal plan, nor should it. You should choose other meals that involve on-sale elements and serve them as described above, putting them on the table and on their plate before they even sit down at the table.

Another good strategy is to stock up hard on a family favorite if you notice that it’s on sale. If you do see the kind of mac and cheese that your children like on sale, stock up. Buy several boxes of that macaroni and cheese at once and stow it away for future meals. Since it’s essentially nonperishable, you don’t have to eat it every day.

We do this with quite a few items at the store. Things like canned diced tomatoes, dry beans, dry rice, and flour are always bought in large quantities (as are virtually all household supplies).

When it actually comes time to prepare a meal, just prepare the whole meal and put some on their plate before bringing them to the table. Don’t discuss what you’re having beforehand – if they ask, just tell them briefly and matter-of-factly and leave it at that. Most of the time, they won’t pay any attention at all unless they’re really hungry.

If they don’t want to eat what you made, simply say, “If you eat one bite of each of those things, you can get down and play and Mommy will be happy.” This worked wonders for our kids. Often, as I noted earlier, they just weren’t hungry at meal time and directed that toward not liking the food.

Some kids are simply “grazers,” and the best way to handle that is to just have plenty of healthy snacks around. Keep apples and bananas on hand and make it clear that those are their snack time choices. Don’t make cookies and candy available with ease – not only are they unhealthy, they’re more expensive than apples and bananas.

These were the strategies we used when our kids were younger and it worked well. Our kids are pretty adventurous eaters these days now that one’s a teenager, one’s a pre-teen, and the other one is in upper elementary. They like things like sushi and lychee and kimchi and pickled garlic and curry, believe it or not, and they’re pretty happy with almost everything we make for dinner.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

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Who has the best savings account in 2019?

Well, my friends, I need your help. I had been planning to research online savings accounts for an upcoming series of articles, but not for several weeks yet. Things have changed.

I recently received a $35,000 lump sum — I hesitate to call it a windfall for reasons that will be clear in a moment — and now I’d like to put it somewhere that I can earn more than 0.01% on my money! I want to find a good high-interest savings account.

But where? In 2019, which online savings account is best? Am I asking the right question? Is an online savings account the best place to put a mound of money like this?

First, let me explain why I’m even interested in finding a new savings account.

Who has the best savings account in 2019?

A Brief Tale of Heartbreaking Loss

As I’ve hinted a few times during the past month, in 2017 and 2018 I made three $50,000 investments in start-up companies. I dabbled in “angel investing”.

One of those investments, as I revealed last week, was in the retirement planning tool called NewRetirement. I also invested in the Financial Gym, an NYC-based financial advice company that takes a “fitness-inspired” approach to offering money advice to real people. (This concept is very similar to a business idea I had: a store that sells financial advice to everyday people. My friend Shannon had a better concept and she’s created a killer business.)

Early last year, I made a third investment. I have a friend who is whip-smart and ultra-successful. She’s started a couple of profitable companies in the past. She and her husband thought they had a great idea for a third, and although this particular concept was outside my area of expertise, I agreed to invest $50,000 in their company.

Well, things didn’t go well. The company failed. I was afraid that with that failure, I’d lost all of my money. Fortunately, I hadn’t. Earlier this month, I received a wire transfer for $34,869.73. After transferring $5000 to my business account (to help pay bills for this site!), I’m left with about $30,000 that I’d like to sock away somewhere that pays more than pennies. But where?

Seeking the Best Savings Account

The last time I went looking for the best savings account was in March 2007. At that time, banks were offering rates over five percent! Look at this screencap from GRS 1.0:

The best banks of 2007

Based on reader feedback from that article — over 1000 responses! — I opened an online savings account with ING Direct. They didn’t have the best interest rates the time, but their rates were very good and GRS readers loved them.

As you probably know, things have changed in the past decade. Interest rates are lower. Banks have folded or merged or been bought out.

That ING Direct savings account long ago became a Capital One 360 savings account. I still have it, but it’s been a while since I used it actively:

My current Capital One 360 account

As you can see, I’m earning 0.99% on my money. That’s a lot compared to, say, a standard savings account at a brick-and-mortar bank. (I was mortified to learn recently that the family business has over $200,000 earning only 0.01% at a major national bank. Holy cats!) But 0.99% seems low for an online savings account. It’s certainly not the best interest rate that’s out there.

The company that used to own this website — with whom I still have a business relationship — has a handy tool that allows folks to look at a lot of today’s top online savings accounts. Naturally, this is going to be a starting point for my search.

Here are a few of their current top offers:

Those rates are much better than my current 0.99% interest rate at Capital One 360. But I don’t know anything about these banks (except HSBC). I haven’t heard personal reviews from friends, colleagues, or readers. Plus, I don’t know if these are the best interest rates available.

Seeking Your Help

I want to use this $30,000 to fund the next few months of my life. (I’d love to say that this money will last me a year, but it’ll be more like six to nine months.) And now that I’m working again, I’d like to explore various saving options.

Naturally, I’m going to conduct research of my own. Most of my colleagues maintain lists of current bank rates. I’ll do a deep Google dive to discover more obscure banks and credit unions. I’ll investigate those “fusion” accounts that pay high interest rates if you jump through hoops.

My girlfriend is a huge fan of Ally Bank, and she proselytizes for them whenever she can. (I am not joking.) I see they’re currently offering a 2.30% 11-month no-penalty certificate of deposit. (Their savings account interest rate is 2.20%.) I’ll certainly check them out, but in the meantime I’m polling the GRS community.

I have no doubt that many of you money bosses actively watch bank rates and features. I suspect you have favorite online savings accounts. Or money market accounts. Or certificates of deposit. Or whatever. I’m hoping you can help me!

Which online savings account is best right now? Which online savings account to you use? Which should I use — and why?

Based on your responses here (plus the responses I get on Twitter, in the GRS Facebook community, and from the GRS email list), I’ll look at a variety of different options. And have no fear. I’ll report back in a week or two to share my decision and I’ll collate a list of the best savings accounts according to you folks.

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.

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