How Much Is Eating Out at Restaurants Really Costing You?

Americans love to eat out — so much so that there are 640,000 total private food service and drinking establishments in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That includes everything from local bars and fast-food restaurants to moderately priced chains and expensive steakhouses.

Citing Census Bureau numbers, USA Today reports that there are 78 full-service restaurants for every 100,000 people in America. That might not sound like a lot, but it only includes full-service, sit-down restaurants with a wait staff; it doesn’t include fast-food joints. Also, the 78-to-100,000 ratio looks tiny when considering how many restaurants are in upscale vacation communities. Breckenridge, Colorado has 410 full-service restaurants for every 100,000 people, Key West has 284, and Ocean City, New Jersey has 331.

No matter how you cut it, that’s a lot of restaurants. In most places in America, all you have to do is take a short drive to find any number of burger, pizza, and sandwich shops waiting and willing to fill your food cravings.

Choice is always good, but too much choice isn’t, especially when it comes to something that’s bad for you. The incredible number of dining options has contributed to Americans’ skyrocketing obesity rates and rising debt.

So, why are we eating out so much? Here’s a closer look at the phenomenon, what it means to you, and how you can save money by cutting back on restaurant expenditures.

Understanding Restaurant Types

Fast Food Restaurant Cashier Counter Order Line

Restaurants fall into different segments based on certain criteria. Here’s a look at what each term means.

1. Fast Food

A fast-food restaurant, also known as a quick-service restaurant, doesn’t offer table service. You go up to a counter, place your order, and get your food on a tray. These restaurants offer a limited number of items — such as hamburgers, deli sandwiches, or hot dogs — depending on their specialty.

You can expect foods cooked in bulk that will come to you fast. When going through a drive-thru, a staple of fast-food restaurants, you can expect to receive your food in three minutes on average. A typical fast-food meal costs less than $6. Examples of fast-food restaurants include McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and A&W.

2. Fast-Casual

A fast-casual restaurant is a step up from fast food but a step below casual dining. Fast-casual has limited to no table service, uses fewer processed foods, and has a more inviting, sit-down feel. Customers spend an average of $12 per person at fast-casual restaurants, such as Chipotle, Panera, and Five Guys.

3. Casual

Casual restaurants have sit-down service, a wait staff, printed menus, and serve a wide range of moderately priced foods, including appetizers, salads, main courses, and desserts. The average casual restaurant check was $13.75 per person in 2013, which doesn’t include tax and tip. Examples of casual restaurants include Bob Evans, Applebee’s, and The Cheesecake Factory.

4. Fine Dining

Fine dining restaurants offer the best food, experience, and amenities on this list. They feature a full-service bar, wine list, and a more intimate atmosphere. Some of these establishments might have white tablecloths covering the tables. Fine dining prices differ dramatically, but Business Insider reports that you can expect to spend an average of $71 per person at The Capital Grille, $69 per person at Fleming’s, and $88 per person at Eddie V’s. Again, that doesn’t include tax and tip.

Why Americans Don’t Cook Much

Woman Tasting Cooking Not Good Kitchen

I learned to cook from my grandmother when I was 8 years old. My grandfather, who had a third-grade education, was a meat cutter in New Jersey. Each morning, he rose early and traveled from their Bronx apartment over the George Washington Bridge and into work.

Those hard days at work kept him hungry, so my grandmother taught me how to make his favorite foods: biscuits and gravy from scratch for breakfast; collard greens, chicken or meatloaf, and mashed potatoes for dinner. She taught me every nuance of cooking, from gently handling dough so it wasn’t tough to peeling potatoes so I wouldn’t cut my fingers.

Similar lessons are still going on in kitchens across America, but not nearly as often. Despite all of those cooking shows on TV and free recipes online, Americans as a whole now spend more money in restaurants than in grocery stores. Here’s why many of us no longer cook at home.

1. We Hate It

Some 45% of Americans say they hate to cook, while another 45% say they could live without it, according to the Harvard Business Review. Just 10% of Americans say they love to cook, and that number has dropped by a third over the last 15 years.

A story published in Nutrition Journal found that between 88% and 95% of Americans prepared their meals at home in 1965. That number dropped to between 65% and 72% by 2007.

What’s behind this lack of love? Read on.

2. We Don’t Have the Time

Times are different. In 1960, both parents worked in only 25% of American families, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, that number is 60%. When both parents work, it’s harder to find the time to cook at home, especially when you’re shuttling kids to after-school activities and sports.

Americans are also working longer hours. The average full-time American worker puts in 8.56 hours per day, or just under 43 hours per week, according to the BLS. White-collar workers put in longer hours.

In addition, the average commute to and from work adds more than four more hours a week to workers’ schedules, and that’s just on average. In Nevada, it takes almost two hours each day for most workers to get back and forth from work using public transportation. Those who drive in Washington D.C. have an average commute of about 44 minutes each way.

3. We Don’t Know How

The Nutrition Journal speculates that people aren’t prepared to cook and lack the skills, confidence, and knowledge to prepare meals at home. It notes that home economic courses, once a staple of education, have all but disappeared. Without those courses, there’s little opportunity to learn cooking fundamentals at a young age.

It’s also possible that all of the TV cooking shows and online recipes out there are giving us a cooking complex, Epicurious notes. The pictures and videos look tasty and terrific, and the ingredient lists are intimidating. Some 10-year-old on Food TV’s “Chopped Junior” just made an entire meal using squid, licorice, spam, and some other food I can’t even identify. It’s hard not to want to order out after watching something like that.

The Costs of Eating Out

Woman Gaining Weight Cant Zip Pants

Everyone gets a craving now and then. I crave pizza — a lot. I love hamburgers. And beef hotdogs with chili? Lord save me.

Cravings themselves aren’t bad, but regularly fulfilling those cravings is awful for you. The same goes for eating out. About one in five Americans visit a fast-food restaurant at least once a week, and more than seven in 10 Americans eat lunch at a fast-food restaurant. All told, Americans are eating meals out, on average, five times a week. And that convenience comes with some serious costs.

1. Weight Gain

The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion reviewed research examining the correlation between eating out — especially at fast-food restaurants — and weight gain. It found that fast-food intake directly correlates to weight gain in children, even if they only eat out once a week. In adults, one study showed that eating fast food more than once a week resulted in increased BMI. BMI, or body mass index, measures whether you’re underweight, overweight, or within medically acceptable weight parameters. Other studies also show a correlation between eating out and weight gain.

These findings are especially concerning against the backdrop of America’s continued obesity epidemic. About 90 million U.S. adults, or roughly 40% or the population, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any adult with a BMI between 25 and 30 is overweight, and more than 30 is considered obese. Nearly 14 million children between the ages of 2 and 19, or 18.5% of the population, are obese.

2. Health Issues

Obesity leads to heart disease, which leads to about 800,000 deaths each year in the United States. Obesity also leads to high blood pressure, which can cause strokes. Some 75 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, and nearly 800,000 people each year have a stroke, which is the fifth-leading cause of death.

Other obesity-related health issues include sleep apnea, diabetes, gout, gallbladder disease, and gallstones.

3. Financial Costs

Being obese also costs a lot of money. Those with obesity spend more money on health care than those who are not obese — an average of $1,429 more per person per year.

There’s also the sheer cost of eating out itself. The average U.S. household spends $3,000 per year eating out, according to BLS statistics reported by Business Insider. The numbers fluctuate significantly by age group, however. Generation X, or those between the ages of 35 and 44, spend $4,249 per household per year. Those in the 45-to-54 age bracket spend slightly less, at $4,157.

Why Eating Out Is So Bad for Us

Plate Of Junk Food Burgers Fried Chicken Fries

Most of the medical studies connecting eating out with weight gain look at fast food. But fast food isn’t the only culprit. Mid-priced and fine dining restaurants can also help you add pounds. Here’s why.

1. Higher Calories

How restaurants prepare foods has a significant impact on how healthy those foods are. Fried foods add calories, as do the heavy creams and sauces dousing certain foods. Even vegetables can be made unhealthy by adding butter and salt; sure, it tastes good, but there goes all the nutritional value. The same goes for fish; a nice piece of salmon with lemon becomes calorie hell if you add hollandaise to it.

The USDA recommends an average adult male should consume 2,500 calories per day, and the average adult female should consume 2,000. In 1970, the average American took in 2,160 calories per day. By 2010, we were ingesting an average of 2,673 calories daily. It’s no surprise that since the 1970s, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled.

2. Bigger Portions

The sheer size of our meals has also changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Some of this has to do with plate size. Plates and portions today are enormous by historical standards. In the 1960s, the average plate size was 7 to 9 inches in diameter. Today, dinner plates are 11 to 12 inches in diameter. The larger the plate, the more you can put on it.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s “Portion Distortion” page outlines how meals have changed over the last 20 years. Here are some of its findings:

  • Bagels are more than twice as large, increasing from 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories to 6 inches in diameter and 350 calories. That doesn’t include butter or cream cheese.
  • Cheeseburgers have increased from 333 to 590 calories, on average. Of course, if you’re going to have a cheeseburger, you’ll likely also have fries and a drink, which adds even more calories.
  • Spaghetti portions are on the rise. One cup of spaghetti and three small meatballs is 500 calories. But a portion you’re more likely to see today, two cups of spaghetti and three large meatballs, contains 1,025 calories.
  • French fry servings are bigger too. A 2.4-ounce portion contains 210 calories. Today’s 6.9-ounce portion has 610 calories.

Again, this isn’t limited to fast foods. There are plenty of meals at sit-down restaurants that break the calorie bank in one sitting.

Texas Roadhouse has a 16-ounce prime rib meal that’s 1,570 calories without sides. Add a Caesar salad and a baked sweet potato loaded with marshmallows and caramel sauce, and you’re at 2,820 calories.

The Dickie’s Barbecue Pit three-meat plate has a mouth-watering combo of beef brisket, polish sausage, and pork ribs with two sides. Add some ice cream for dessert, and you’re at 2,500 calories.

The Cheesecake Factory has an amazing Pasta Napoletana chock full of bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and meatballs. It’s 2,310 calories.

Even at fine dining establishments, the calories add up. Steakhouses offer sauces, such as hollandaise, that add hundreds of calories to a meal. A steak without any sides clocks in at over 1,000 calories unless you order the smallest fillet on the menu. By the time you add sides, you’ve blown your daily calorie count in one meal.

How Much Can You Save by Eating at Home?

Family Cooking At Home

It costs five times as much to have a restaurant meal delivered to your home, and three times as much to prepare a meal from a meal kit, as it does to prepare a meal from scratch. For example, it costs about $22 for one order of chicken teriyaki from a restaurant, but the same meal costs $1.30 per serving to make at home. You could enjoy an order of chicken wings for $20 from a restaurant or at home for just over $2. A fancy beef Wellington costs only $4.53 per serving at home but more than $36 from a restaurant.

Of course, from time to time, you will still want to eat out. Maybe you want to celebrate a promotion with a nice meal. Maybe it’s been a particularly tough week at work and you need to unwind. Eating out on occasion won’t break the budget. But if you cut back significantly on the number of meals you eat out, you can save a bunch of money in the process.

How You Could Spend That Extra Money Instead

Let’s say you cut your eating-out budget by $1,000 per year, or about $80 per month. You invest that $1,000 per year for 10 years in an index fund. Let’s say that fund returns 7.743%, the average the Dow has returned over the last 20 years. If you make this investment for 10 years, your pre-tax investment will grow to more than $17,200. Do it for 20 years, and you’re at almost $49,000.

Or, let’s say you pay down debt with that $1,000. The average American has $6,375 in credit card debt. If you incur the average interest rate of 16.71% and pay the minimum balance of 2% a month, it would take you 86 months, or just over six years, to pay off that debt, according to Credit Karma’s debt repayment calculator. But if you apply that extra $80 per month to your bill, your payback period will decrease to 41 months, and you’ll save $2,655 in interest.

You’ll save even more if you’ve recently accepted a new credit card offer. The average interest rate for new credit card offers is 19.05%. Using the same numbers as above, it will take 100 months, or more than eight years, to pay your bill if you only make the minimum payment. If you apply that extra $80 a month, however, you’ll pay off your loan in just 43 months and save $3,886 in interest.

Imagine how much you could save, invest, or pay down if you cut your eating out expenses even more?

How to Make Cooking at Home Easier

Meal Prep Tupperware Healthy Meals

Saving money and losing weight sounds great, but how can you make cooking at home realistic for your household? Try these tips.

1. Buy a Slow Cooker

You can buy kitchen tools that will make it easier to cook at home. Slow cookers, or Crock-Pots, are easy to operate; simply put ingredients in them and let it cook all day. There is a multitude of free slow cooker recipes online, and slow cookers are inexpensive.

2. Choose Easy Recipes

You don’t have to spend a ton of time to make a healthy, delicious meal. There are lots of tasty 30-minute meal recipes that are easy to make and take the pressure off cooking.

3. Create A Meal Plan

You can save money, reduce food waste, and eat healthier with meal planning. It’s easier than it sounds, and it can save you time and the stress of wondering to make each night for dinner. Using a service like can make it extremely simple.

4. Make Freezer Meals

Making food and freezing it also provides less-expensive, healthier alternatives to grabbing food on the go. You can work ahead so that when you come home, all you have do is pop your meal in the microwave or heat it up in the oven or on the stove top. There are plenty of easy freezer meal recipes to choose from.

Final Word

It’s not realistic to think that people won’t ever eat out. Between birthdays, Valentine’s Day, graduations, and other occasions, there’s always a reason to eat out from time to time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is figuring out a balance between eating out and eating out too much.

Eating at home will help your diet and your weight. You’ll know what you’re putting in your body, and you can avoid fat, sodium, and other byproducts that aren’t the best for you. You can use the money you save by cooking at home to pay down debt or add to your retirement savings. Plus, cooking is great family time, especially in an era when we’re working longer hours with longer commutes. You’ll build a lifetime of memories with your family, just as I have with my grandmother.

And, when you become debt free, you can celebrate with a nice meal.

How often do you eat out?

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Six Effortless Ways to Make a Bigger Dent in Your Debt

Paying down debt can often seem daunting, insurmountable, and sometimes entirely defeating.

Yet the need for Americans to get control of their debt is more pressing than ever. As of February 2019, according to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt exceeded $4 trillion for the first time ever — that’s not even including home mortgages.

While there are many tried-and-true approaches to paying down debt, including the debt snowball method and using a loan to consolidate high-interest debts into one (ideally) lower monthly payment, we asked personal finance and debt experts to share some of the other, smaller, daily or weekly ways to effortlessly chip away at those bills. It turns out there are a variety of tactics you can apply to your payment routine to help speed up your journey toward being debt-free.

1. Use apps that help pay down debt.

There are apps for nearly everything these days. Apps that help you save money, apps that help you invest and yes, apps that were created specifically to help you with the chore of paying down debt.

Robert Farrington, creator of the site The College Investor, likes Cents, an app specifically designed to help users pay off credit cards with their spare change.

Cents makes monthly payments toward your debt by using what it calls the roundups from your purchases. In other words, spend $9.45 on something, and Cents will round up the purchase to $10 and put the remaining 55 cents toward debt payments.

The app claims it can help erase compounding interest on your debts, saving the average user hundreds of dollars.

Farrington did a test run with the app himself, and liked what he saw.

“When I looked into this app, a quick review of my transactions for the previous month showed that the Cents app would have directed $42 to debt, and charged another $2 for its services,” he explained. “That isn’t a ton of money per month heading to my debt, but the cost also isn’t too high. I believe someone struggling to pay down debt or who is simply looking for more painless ways to pay down debt might find the extra $2 well worth the cost.”

Cents is of course, just one example. Other options include ChangEd, which operates in a similar way as Cents, rounding up your spending to the nearest dollar. But in the case of ChangeEd, the money is applied to student loan debt.

Tally, meanwhile, is yet another helpful app, one aimed at those with particularly high-interest credit card debt.

2. Set up direct debits to a savings account.

Yaz Purnell, founder of The Wallet Moth, a lifestyle and money website that provides practical, sustainable, and frugal living advice, offers yet another option to help banish debt.

“One of my favorite ways to pay extra towards debts without even thinking about it is to simply set up a direct debit into a savings account that’s dedicated to paying off a loan,” explains Purnell. “Hide, or even destroy, the debit card associated with that savings account so you can only access the money via your online banking.”

Once the account is established, set-up a direct debit to transfer a small amount of money to your new savings on the same day you get paid.

“Soon enough, you won’t even miss that spare cash – and you’ll have a nice pot of money accumulating for paying off your loans in no time,” says Purnell.

3. Split your debt payments in two each month.

A biweekly approach to debt payment can go a long way toward more quickly eliminating those bills, says Adele Alligood, a financial advisor with EndThrive. It was one of many measures she used to help pay off $76,000 in debt.

“By using this biweekly payment method, it means you’ll have an extra payment go towards your loans each year with no extra effort,” she explains.

Here’s what Alligood means: Whether it’s a credit card, mortgage, or student loan payment, divide the monthly payment in half, and then pay that bill every other week instead of just once a month.

“For example, if you’re paying $400 per month, split it into $200 every two weeks,” said Alligood. “This method is great because it requires no extra work – you just change the way you make the payments.”

The biweekly approach to paying debts means you’ll make 26 half payments in a year– or 13 full payments, as opposed to the standard 12 full payments made on a monthly payment plan, continued Alligood.

In other words, you will have made an extra payment towards your debt each year, without even feeling the financial impact.

Yet another variation on the increased payments theme, Lisa Hebert, creator of Money Minded Mom, suggests making payments every single week.

“There are two advantages to making weekly payments, says Hebert. “One, you’ll end up making 52 weekly payments, which equates to an extra payment per year. Secondly, you’re accruing less interest throughout each month on the outstanding balance of the loan. This reduces the total amount of interest you’ll pay during the life of your loan, saving you money in the long run.”

4. Increase debt payments when you get a raise.

Sure, it might be tempting to pocket your annual raises and live a little larger. But if you immediately put the extra income towards your loans or debts, you won’t even notice the missing money, says Anna Keisler, an associate financial advisor with SG Financial.

However, Keisler offers one caveat to this suggestion. If you have no emergency savings, it’s a good idea to split that raise in half.

“Put half of it into savings while putting half towards debt,” she explains. “When you have enough saved up, consider increasing the amount you put towards debt.”

5. Transfer your debt to a lower interest rate.

This tried and true method of helping to attack debt should be well known by now, but it’s worth repeating.

“If you have outstanding credit card debt, transfer it to a line of credit so you’re paying a lower interest rate and putting extra money towards your overall debt,” advises Jacqueline Gilchrist, creator of Mom Money Map. “The interest rate for credit cards is often over 20%, whereas the interest rate for a line of credit is usually around 5%.”

Yet another variation on this theme is shifting your credit card balances to a zero-interest balance transfer card, so every bit of your payment is being applied to the principal.

6. Use gift cards as budgeting tools.

When we overspend in our daily lives, it impacts how much money we have available to pay towards debt each month, says Ryan Junas, a personal finance coach and creator of the blog Arrest Your Debt.

“Often groceries and entertainment are the areas we overspend on the most,” Junas explained. “If you plan out your entertainment and grocery bill at the beginning of the month, you can purchase gift cards for those amounts. When you go to the store, bring only your gift cards and leave your credit cards at home. When the money runs out, you cannot overspend. This leaves more room for debt repayment at the end of the month.”

What’s more, you can often buy gift cards on the resale market at a discount, freeing up more cash for debt repayment. Junas suggests looking for discounted gift cards at places like Costco, Sam’s Club, or

Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

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Thirteen years of Get Rich Slowly

Thie middle of April is a Big Deal in my world.

The trees have nearly finished blossoming, which means my allergies will soon go away. We’re seeing more of the sun, which means the worst of my seasonal depression is behind me. Yesterday, on the 14th, Kim and I celebrated seven years as a couple. And today, on the 15th, Get Rich Slowly celebrates thirteen years of existence.

That’s right: This blog is now a teenager.

In the Beginning

When I started Get Rich Slowly, I had no idea what it was going to become. I had no grand plan or vision. I just wanted to write about money while accomplishing three goals.

  • My primary goal was to document my own journey as I dug out of debt and (I hoped) eventually learned how to build wealth.
  • My secondary aim was to help my family and friends get better with their money too. (Although, truthfully, in my entire social circle, I was probably the person with the worst personal finance skills.)
  • And, third on the list, I wanted to make a little extra money with the site. I figured if I could make a few hundred bucks with it, I could pay off my debt a little sooner.

On 26 April 2005 — a year before I started this blog — I published an article called “Get Rich Slowly!” for my personal site. Here’s what I wrote:

Today’s entry is long and boring. It’s all about the keys to wealth, prosperity, and happiness. Over the past few months, I’ve read over a dozen books on personal finance. Recurring themes have become evident.

These books have embarrassingly bad titles, seemingly designed to appeal to the get-rich-quick crowd: The Richest Man in Babylon, Your Money or Your Life, Rich Dad Poor Dad, Think and Grow Rich, Wealth Without Risk, etc.

Some of the books out there — most of them? — really are as bad as their titles. Others, however, offer outstanding, practical advice. The best books seem to have the same goal in mind: not wealth, not riches, but financial independence.

According to Your Money or Your Life, which I consider the very best of the financial books I’ve read, “Financial independence is the experience of having enough — and then some”. More practically, financial independence occurs when your investment income meets or exceeds your monthly expenses. Financial independence is linked to psychological freedom.

How is financial independence achieved? Again, the best books all basically agree. (To some of you, this will be common sense, stuff you’ve known all your life. To others, like me, this kind of thinking is a sort of revelation.)

Here, then, is my personal summary of the collected wisdom found in these books.

“It’s nearly impossible to get rich quick without luck,” I concluded after summarizing all of these money books. “Getting rich quick is a sucker’s bet. There’s only a slim chance that you’ll have the sort of luck that’s required. You might as well play the lottery.”

Instead, I thought the underlying message of these books was simple: “It is possible to get rich slowly, however, with no risk, and with no luck. All that’s required is patience and discipline.”

Get Rich Slowly 1.0

That original “Get Rich Slowly” article at my personal site proved popular. It went the 2005 version of “viral”, being shared at sites like Boing Boing, Lifehacker, etc.

A year later, I was still searching for a way to earn money on the side to help me dig out of debt. I decided that maybe I could earn a few bucks by starting a site about saving and investing. I actually thought mine would be the first personal-finance blog on the Internet! (Ha — little did I know! There were already dozens — dozens! — of other money blogs out there.)

On April 15, 2006, I launched Get Rich Slowly. It was successful from the start. For whatever reason, the stuff I wrote resonated with readers. They shared the site with their friends and family.

Within weeks, I had several hundred readers. Within months, the audience had grown to several thousand. Within two years, more than 500,000 people per month were coming to the site. It was crazy. It was completely unexpected. I was shocked. And grateful.

Those early days of GRS were a hell of a lot of fun. I was figuring this money stuff out in real time, and writing about my successes (and, yes, my failures) as they happened. I did some stupid, stupid stuff — but as time went on, I got better at managing my money.

Needless to say, writing about smart money management every day — for 1000 days — produces a lot of articles! Certain articles stood out as particularly popular — I think because they were particularly helpful. Anyway, here are some highlights from the first three years of the site:

  • In praise of the debt snowball (28 Sep 2006) — When I started Get Rich Slowly, I had over $35,000 in consumer debt. I lived paycheck to paycheck on a salary of over $50,000 per year. Basically, I was your typical American consumer. To get out of debt, I used Dave Ramsey’s version of the debt snowball. A lot of folks want to complain that using this method is based on bad math, but so what? If math were the issue, I wouldn’t have been in debt — and neither would many other people. The debt snowball works, and that’s why I love it.
  • Are index funds the best investment? (24 Jan 2007) — At first, I was a bad investor. In fact, I was a gambler, not an investor. I took chances on random stocks in the hopes they’d shoot through the roof. Reading and writing about money quickly taught me that pros like Warren Buffett (and many more) actually endorse a simple investment strategy for average folks like you and me. For us, putting our savings into indexed mutual funds is the most reliable long-term investment.
  • Which online high-yield savings account and money market account is best? (21 Mar 2007, although this link is to a recent update) — As I started learning smart money habits, I realized it was dumb for me to leave my money in a big national bank that paid me no interest. But where should I save my money instead? To find out, I polled GRS readers. Whoa! Who knew this simple question would create such a huge response? Readers left over 1700 comments with suggestions about where to get the most bang for my buck.
  • Free at last! Saying good-bye to 20 years of debt (03 Dec 2007) — It took a lot of time and effort, but my new habits finally paid off. Three years after starting my quest, I wrote a check for the last of my consumer debt. From here, I could start building future wealth instead of repaying past folly.
  • A real millionaire next door (13 May 2008) — I used to live next door to an old guy named John. John was a retired shop teacher who had managed to build big wealth on a small salary. Now, in his 70s, he spent part of the year working on farms in New Zealand, part of the year on an Alaskan fishing boat, and part of the year puttering around his home in Portland. Later, I decided to interview him about what led to his financial success.
  • You can’t always get what you want (24 Nov 2008) — Notes from a conversation with my cousin: It’s okay to have something in your life that you hate. And it’s okay to have something you want. It’s natural. The problem is that once you get that thing, you’re just going to hate something else, you’re just going to want something more. It’s not want that’s the problem, but the habit of constantly satisfying wants.

So much happened in my life during these years, both good and bad. It seems odd to summarize that entire period in just a few articles, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. (If you want to read more, check out the archives.)

Get Rich Slowly 2.0

While the early, heady years of GRS were carefree and fun, running the site eventually became work. A lot of work. Plus, all sorts of stuff was going on behind the scenes in my personal life. My best friend committed suicide. I was unhappy in my marriage. I struggled with my weight. It was all too much.

In early 2009, I decided to listen to the offers from people who wanted to buy Get Rich Slowly. Shortly after the site’s third anniversary, I agreed to sell it.

When I sold, I became financially independent. (I was already on a path toward financial independence — or “FI,” as we say — but the sale helped me leap ahead several years.) My plan was simply to walk away and be done with writing about money. Turns out, I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

You see, I love the GRS community. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to continue answering emails, sharing reader questions and stories, and documenting what I was learning about money. Instead of walking away, I stuck around for another three years as editor and primary writer.

During that time, we brought in other writers to help me manage the workload. I was always amazed at how each new voice added another dimension to the site. And our content changed in yet another way because I was becoming much more philosophical about money at this time.

I’d always stressed the importance of psychology; but as my financial philosophy matured, I became even more convinced that smart money management was all about mindset, not math. The math is easy. It’s the emotional stuff that’s tough. Some of the best articles from this era of GRS really get to the heart of these issues, and I hope that what I learned will be helpful to others, too.

  • The razor’s edge: Lessons in true wealth (18 Jan 2009) — This is perhaps the most important article I ever wrote for Get Rich Slowly, although most people would never know it. In early 2009, my best friend took his own life. It had a profound impact on me. Here I wrote about what I learned from Sparky’s life — and his death.
  • How to negotiate your salary (06 May 2009) — I don’t think people spend enough time looking for ways to boost their income. There’s a reason I mention this over and over and over again. Learning how to negotiate your salary is one of the best ways to improve your financial well-being.
  • Understanding the federal budget and The truth about taxes (August 2009) — We cannot have informed discussions about taxes and government spending if we don’t have the baseline information. Because my own education on this subject was weak, and because I wanted GRS readers to be informed, I spent 12 hours researching a variety of tax topics. These two articles record my attempts to provide that baseline information. (I need to update these for 2019, don’t I?)
  • Action not words: The difference between talkers and doers (30 Aug 2010) — If there’s something you want to be or do, the best way to become that thing is to actually take steps toward it, to move in that direction. Don’t just talk about it, but do something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just take a small step in the right direction every single day.
  • America’s love-hate relationship with wealth (14 Nov 2011) — While writing about money, I’ve noticed that people in general (and Americans in particular) have a complex love-hate relationship with wealth. People want to be rich — but they’re suspicious of those who already are. Why is that? How can we learn to be happy for the financial success of others?
  • A place of my own (16 Jan 2012) — The toughest blog post I’ve ever had to write: After months of hinting at things, I revealed that my wife and I were getting a divorce, and that I’d moved into an apartment of my own. This post explored some of the implications of that decision. (For the record: Kris and I continue to maintain our friendship.)

Eventually, after three years of lingering at GRS, I reached the point where I was willing to cut the cord. I gradually reduced my involvement until I was ready to walk away. I eased myself out of the site and into the life I’d been hoping to pursue.

The Quinstreet Years

I sold Get Rich Slowly in 2009 but stayed on as editor (and primary writer) for another three years. By mid-2012, it seemed that Quinstreet, the company that had acquired the site, was ready to run the site on its own. Plus, it felt like both the audience and I were both ready for me to leave.

So, I retired. Sort of.

Although I no longer had any active involvement in Get Rich Slowly, I still contributed articles from time to time. Plus, I wrote about money for other outlets.

In 2010, I published Your Money: The Missing Manual. (I’m proud of that book but it’s sorely in need of an update.) From 2011 to 2014, I wrote the “Your Money” column for Entrepreneur magazine. In 2014, I released the Get Rich Slowly course. In 2015, I started a new site called Money Boss (which is now a part of GRS). And so on.

Plus, of course, Kim and I embarked on our awesome 15-month tour of the U.S. by RV.

I’ll confess: I didn’t pay much attention to Get Rich Slowly after I moved on. I checked in now and then, but mostly I ignored it. Looking through the archives, here are some of the articles that stand out during the Quinstreet years:

  • How to handle people who undermine your success (06 Jan 2012, by April Dykman) — April Dykman was always one of my favorite staff writers here at GRS. I loved learning from her progress. Here she shared some thoughts on how to handle haters in your life. As you work toward a better financial future, you will encounter people who think your choices are foolish. April — and the commenters — have some tips for coping with the criticism.
  • The power of personal transformation: Change yourself, change the world (16 Jul 2012, by J.D. Roth) — In July 2012, I spoke at World Domination Summit. This is the written version of that speech, which was all about overcoming fear, finding focus, and taking action. I argued that by finding the courage to change what’s wrong in your own life, you’ll not only improve yourself, but improve the world around you. (This material has become the psychological core of my financial philosophy.)
  • Romanticizing poverty and learning financial independence (03 Jan 2013, by Kristin Wong) — Kristin Wong was another great GRS writer. In this piece, she talks about different perceptions of wealth and poverty — and how those perceptions influence our choices. Her articles always led to great discussions.
  • All you need to know about saving for retirement (15 May 2013, by Robert Brokamp) — Before I left GRS, I brokered a deal with the Motley Fool that brought regular contributions from the hilarious (and smart) Robert Brokamp. He contributed many terrific pieces over the years, but I particularly like this crash course in retirement savings. If you’re wondering where to start, start here.
  • You are the boss of you: How to find success with money and life (01 Aug 2013, by J.D. Roth) — I’ve always said that nobody cares more about your money than you do. But I’ve come to realize that nobody cares more about you than you do. The key to success — in every area of life — is to understand that you control your own destiny. If you want to be successful with money and life, you must act as your own boss.
  • How to track your spending (and why you should) (24 April 2014, by Holly Johnson) — Holly is another one of the great staff writers that GRS hosted during the Quinstreet years. (I’m excited because she’s promised to give me a guest post soon about some of her home improvement fiascos. Should be fun!) I like this article, in which she takes a friend to task for not tracking his spending. He and his wife make a lot of money but they’re constantly broke. Why? Because they have no idea where there money goes.
  • 29 Ways to build your emergency fund out of thin air (18 Jan 2016, by Donna Freedman) — Donna has contributed a lot of great articles to GRS over the years. (And I hope that at some point in the future, I’ll be able to afford to hire her to write here again.) I liked this piece, which provides tons of tips for boosting your saving rate. Saving more isn’t just for building an emergency fund; it’s also important for digging out of debt and, eventually, pursuing goals like homeownership and financial independence.

During the Quinstreet years, the GRS audience dwindled. This was in part due to the way they managed the site. They had good intentions (and lots of smart people behind the scenes), but they didn’t have the same passion for personal finance that I did. Plus, they tended to make decisions that favored short-term results instead of long-term growth. I can’t fault them for their choices — they did what was right for them — but I’m sad that the community eventually collapsed.

Not all of the collapse was due to blog management, though. Even if I hadn’t sold the site, it likely would have faded eventually, and for a number of reasons: the rise of social media, the “death of blogs”, and increased competition from awesome new sites on a variety of niche subjects.

Get Rich Slowly 3.0

In 2015, I “unretired” from blogging. I founded Money Boss, a site where I posted long, meaty articles about managing your money as if you were the CFO of your own life. I had fun. The site didn’t grow as quickly as GRS had nine years before, but after eighteen months, the site had acquired several thousand dedicated followers.

Then, in the spring of 2017, Quinstreet approached me. They asked me if I wanted to re-purchase Get Rich Slowly. Looking at the numbers, I realized it probably didn’t make much financial sense to do so — but I didn’t let that dissuade me. In October 2017, I bought Get Rich Slowly.

In the eighteen months since my return, I’ve published a lot of articles that I think are especially good. Here are some highlights:

  • What the rich do differently: Habits that foster wealth and success (18 Dec 2017) — I’m fascinated by the differences between rich people and poor people. Are the differences mostly a matter of class and economic mobility? Are people born to wealth and poverty and destined to remain there? Or are there observable differences in attitude and action that tend to lead people to specific levels of affluence? From my experience, it’s some of both.
  • Start where you are (04 Jan 2018) — My main message to family and friends who find themselves at forty or fifty and feel behind the curve is: Don’t panic. All is not lost. You’re not too late. This isn’t a contest. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
  • The plight of the poor: Thoughts on systemic poverty, fault, and responsibility (28 Feb 2018) — There are very real differences between the behaviors and attitudes of those who have money and those who don’t. If we want ourselves and others to be able to enjoy economic mobility, to escape poverty and dire circumstances, we have to have an understanding of the necessary mental shifts. The problem, of course, is that it’s one thing to understand intellectually that wealthy people and poor people have different mindsets, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to adopt more productive attitudes in your own life.
  • The forever fallacy (11 Jul 2018) — The forever fallacy is the mistaken belief that you will always have what you have today, that you’ll always be who you are today. The truth is that everything changes. You change. Your circumstances change. The people around you change. Nothing is forever. The challenge then is to balance this concept — everything changes — with living in the present. You must learn to enjoy today while simultaneously preparing for a variety of possible tomorrows.
  • The boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness (26 Oct 2018) — Last October, I spent a week exploring the relationship between cost and quality. Quality tends to come with a price. While there are ways to mitigate some of these higher costs — buy used, wait for sales, etc. — if you want to buy new quality items, you’re going to pay a premium. Because of this, quality is often something reserved for the rich. Like so many things in life, this is fundamentally unfair. But that’s how things are.
  • Why frugality is an important part of personal finance (31 Jan 2019) — Depriving yourself of certain “standard” choices now means you don’t have to lead a life of deprivation when you’re older. When you choose to spend less, you’re not just boosting your bottom line. You’re also gaining the time and freedom that would have been required to earn that money. Thrift isn’t deprivation. It’s wealth.
  • Saving regret — and how to avoid it (27 Feb 2019) — Very few people regret saving money. In fact, research shows that less than 2% of people would save less if they could re-do their earlier life. On the other hand, two-thirds of people wish they’d saved more when they were younger. Poorer people tend to regret not saving most of all. The bottom line: To avoid regrets when you’re older, save more now.

I won’t lie. While I’m glad to be back and I’ve enjoyed the past eighteen months, it’s also been tough. I have lots to say, but I’ve struggled to figure out exactly how to say it. Blogging has changed. Expectations are different. I am different than when I started this site.

I’m constantly wrestling with questions like: How often should I write? (Once a week? Three times a week? At random intervals?) Should I share only new stuff? Or should I republish updated material from the archives? In the olden days, I used to share tons of things from other sites. Should I continue to do that? Or should I focus on my own thoughts? How long should my articles be? (A few hundred words? Or…a few thousand?) What topics should I cover?

If you walk through the GRS archives, you can see how I’ve struggled to find a rhythm for Get Rich Slowly 3.0.

My publication pattern for the past year has been…well, irregular. There are some months where I write and publish a ton, both from myself and others. There are other months — like this one — during which I publish little. (Real Life has been distracting me lately. I have plenty I want to write about, but no time to do it.) And my articles are all over the place.

I’m not worried, though. I know I’ll figure things out. In the meantime, I’m having fun. I hope that you are having fun too. And, as always, if you have any suggestions and/or requests for things you’d like to see around here, please let me know. I want GRS to be a useful resource for you — for all of you.

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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7 Ways to Retire — Even When the Economy Heads South Again

Photo by Rido /

Few ever feel ready for retirement, but tumbling stocks can shake the confidence of even the most prepared.

And with 2018 having been the market’s worst year in a decade, nobody could blame you for feeling like we’re on shaky ground.

Despite the stock market rally so far this year, it’s also possible the market could start to fall again — and drop even lower than where it was in the last week of 2018. Neither you nor any expert has a way to know for sure, so you may be strongly tempted to make a move. But should you?

That depends on your financial situation and your appetite for risk. Let’s talk it through, starting with the simplest and safest options and moving toward riskier and more complicated ones.

1. Work longer

The less you have to dip into your investments at what may be one of their lowest points, the more potential and time they have to recover.

That means if your health and situation allow, continuing to work is the safest step to take. It gives you an opportunity to keep growing your nest egg instead of raiding it.

Even if you can’t work full time, you may have more options than you realize — from taking on a project-based or consulting role at a previous employer to picking up part-time jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Check out “19 Ways to Make Extra Money in Retirement” and consider a service like FlexJobs, a subscription-based jobs board that manually screens postings for work-from-home jobs and other flexible jobs.

2. Wait it out

This is the stock advice everyone hears during bad times: Sit tight and wait for the market to recover. People who panicked and sold right after Christmas are already wishing they’d listened.

Yes, your situation is more pressing than people who have several more years of work ahead of them. But to the extent you can, avoid touching your investments and otherwise proceed as planned with your retirement.

This is the simplest course if you’re not in a position to continue working or pick up work. It’ll go smoothest if you already have enough cash to cover a couple of years’ worth of living expenses.

If you’re not yet drawing Social Security and younger than 70, there’s one more big benefit of waiting: You can boost your monthly Social Security benefit.

Check out “Maximize Your Social Security” to learn how to obtain a personalized report on the best way to claim benefits.

3. Examine your portfolio

Reviewing your investments might give you the peace of mind you need to wait it out, or it might spur you to make some needed changes.

For a starting point, compare your current asset allocation with the rule of thumb Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson often recommends.

As he explains it in “5 Mistakes That Will Ruin Your Investment Returns“:

“Start by subtracting your age from 100, then put no more than the resulting figure as a percentage of your long-term savings into stocks. So if you’re 25, 100 minus 25 equals 75 percent in stocks. If you’re 75, you’d only use stocks for 25 percent of your savings.”

Are you too heavily invested in stocks? Are you safely diversified in index funds, or dangerously concentrated in a sector that might get hit harder? What are the fees like on your accounts?

More importantly, what does your gut tell you about the possibility the market could drop by half, as it did during the Great Recession? Is that something you can handle?

These are questions you should be asking yourself regularly, and long before the economy sours.

To get step-by-step directions for scrutinizing your portfolio, check out “Year-End Review: Evaluate Your Retirement Accounts in 15 Minutes or Less.”

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New Barclays Feature Takes Card Locking One Step Further

If you’re trying to get a grip on your spending, or you’re looking to manage what an authorized user can spend on your account, Barclays’ new granular card control features may be just what you’re looking for.

Several issuers already offer their own versions of card locking or freezing. But Barclays’ “control your card, control your spend” functionality — publicly announced this week and available via the issuer’s mobile app — “goes above and beyond card locking,” says Sagar Dalal, head of digital payments and innovation at Barclays US Consumer Bank.

It allows a primary cardholder to:

  • Freeze or unfreeze an account, using the SecurHold feature on Barclays’ mobile app.
  • Restrict or limit you or an authorized user from spending a certain amount and/or in a specific merchant category.
  • Opt to receive real-time notifications when your account is used to make a purchase or is declined for a purchase.

With the new feature, cardholders can set not only financial limits but also limits on the spending categories where a card can be used. For example, parents of college students can give them a card that can be used only for certain school-related expenses and not on entertainment. Or someone actively trying to stick to a budget can set a spending limit on the card for food and drink vendors to avoid overspending.

Limiting the amount or type of transaction may also be a good fraud deterrent, Dalal says. Even if you don’t realize your card is lost or has been stolen, your risk of exposure may be mitigated if a potential thief can’t use the account to fraudulently charge up pricey electronics, jewelry or other big-ticket items.

Setting these restrictions won’t interfere with recurring payments like subscriptions and automatic bill pay; it will apply only to new purchases and cash advances, Dalal says.

In addition to toggling various restrictions on and off via the mobile app, users can also call Barclays to make their request.

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The Best Legitimate Paid Online Surveys

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy here.

Are you interested in taking online surveys for cash, but you’re not sure which ones to trust? This is a go-to list of legitimate paid online surveys you can trust. We’ve done all the research for you (and most of these I’ve tried myself in the past) so that you don’t have to worry about being scammed.

{Looking for other ways to earn money from home? Check out our comprehensive list of Over 40 Income-Earning Ideas!}

Paid Online Surveys for Money

What Are Paid Online Surveys?

Online surveys are just what they sound like — it’s where you take surveys for money in exchange for your honest opinion.

Online survey companies want your opinion for market research purposes. One of the easiest ways for companies to do market research is to incentivize the general public to give their feedback, experience, or opinion — which is why you can get paid for online surveys!

When you take online surveys for money, survey topics can cover just about anything from your hobbies and interests to your shopping habits and product preferences, and everything in between.

Are Online Surveys Legitimate?

There is a common misconception that online survey companies aren’t legitimate, but that’s definitely not true!

You just have to know what to look out for, what to avoid, and which companies to trust.

The truth is that there are a lot of really great online survey companies that legitimately and honestly want your opinion in exchange for cash!

How Much Can You Earn With Surveys?

While you won’t get rich or earn a full-time income from taking paid online surveys, it is a really nice way to earn a little extra money on the side — especially when you have more time than money!

It’s also a great way to save up for Christmas gifts throughout the year when you don’t have much wiggle room in the budget.

When Jesse was in law school and I had a lot of extra free time on my hands, I enjoyed taking online surveys for money! Those were some of the toughest times in our marriage, and every little bit helped stretch our really tight budget during those financially lean years.

The Best Online Surveys for Cash

If you’re looking for legitimate paid online surveys to take, here are some companies I highly recommend:

Swagbucks: This is easily my very favorite survey site — but it’s SO much more than a survey site! You can also earn for searching the web, playing games, watching videos, taking advantage of special offers, and shopping the Internet. For years, I’ve used Swagbucks to pay for plane tickets, hotel rooms, Amazon purchases, and SO much more. The best part of this site is how easy it is to cash out. Save up your points if you want, or redeem for a $3 or $5 Amazon Gift Card really quickly! Go here to get started. You’ll get $3 just for signing up!

Pinecone Research: This was my very favorite survey site when Jesse was in law school! They pay $3 promptly for every survey completed. Go here and sign up to see if you qualify. This company has a lower acceptance rate than other companies, but they take new applicants at the very beginning of each month! So if you don’t get in on the first try, come back on the 1st of each month to keep trying!

OneOpinion: This company gets really great reviews and is known for their availability of quick and easy paid online surveys, their amazing 24/7 customer service with a smaller customer-focused team, and super quick payout when you redeem your points. Once you reach 25,000 points, you can cash in for $25 in the form of PayPal funds, a VISA gift card, or an Amazon gift card!  Go here to sign up.

Opinion Outpost: This company pays in point rewards for every completed survey. You can cash these in for instant win opportunities, sweepstakes, or cash. There are also opportunities to do free product testing. You can choose payout at $5 for an Amazon gift card or at $10 for cash. Go here to sign up.

Harris Poll: When you sign up for Harris Poll, you will receive 50 points to welcome you to the site. When you reach 1250 points, you can trade in for a $10 gift card. Most surveys take less than 15-20 minutes to complete and can be done from your mobile device. Go here to sign up. (And go here to see a reader testimonial about this company!)

Survey Junkie: This reputable company gets really great reviews! It is known for a low minimum payout threshold and a quick & easy first payout. You can cash in for $10 once you reach 1,000 points. Choose from PayPal funds, direct bank transfer, or a gift card of your choice!

Bonus: In addition to these paid online surveys, you can also sign up for Inbox Dollars where you’ll get paid to read emails, search the web, take surveys, and more. I used to love earning free gift cards through Inbox Dollars!

Some Tips on Taking Surveys for Money

If you’re interested in taking online surveys for cash, here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

  • Use a dedicated e-mail address for survey sites. When you’re taking a lot of surveys, you’re going to get quite a few e-mails. To avoid cluttering your personal inbox, I highly recommend signing up for a separate e-mail address that you use just for taking surveys.
  • Update your information often. Survey companies are often looking for targeted demographics — certain age ranges, income levels, geographical locations, or job positions — so it’s really important to make sure you keep your information updated. If you change jobs, move geographical locations, have another child, or become a home owner, be sure to update all of that information!
  • Always be honest, but don’t be afraid to keep it vague. It’s important to be honest when you take surveys, because a) legitimate survey companies are doing honest market research and b) your answers need to be consistent and not seem dishonest, especially when you’re taking a lot of surveys. That being said, don’t be afraid to keep things as vague as you can while also answering honestly. Don’t give any extra information you don’t feel comfortable with! Go with the quickest, easiest answer you can while also being honest. If any information is optional, I recommend skipping it.
  • Never, ever pay to join a survey site. Legitimate survey companies will never charge you to join or sign up. If you see a survey company wanting to charge you, stay far away! That’s one of the surest signs that the survey company is not legitimate.
  • Never give out your bank account information. Although you’re taking surveys for cash, legitimate survey companies always offer gift cards or PayPal as payout options. You shouldn’t ever be forced to give your banking information as the only payout option. That’s most likely a sign that the survey company is not one that can be trusted.

What are some of your favorite companies that offer legitimate paid online surveys? I’d love to know if I missed an important one! Tell us in the comments!

Looking for more in-depth advice on how to make money from home?

Be sure to check out my book Money-Making Mom: How Every Woman Can Earn More and Make A Difference, where I share creative ways to manage money, generate income and–most importantly–live a life of deeper meaning, fulfillment, and generosity than you might have ever imagined possible. This book will give you hard-won wisdom, real-life stories, and practical tips to help inspire and motivate you!

Don’t miss our huge list of Over 40 Income-Earning Ideas!

I also highly, highly recommend Angie Nelson’s eCourse: How to Land Your First Work-At-Home Job. This step-by-step guide will give you valuable information and tips!

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5 Easy Ways to Set Up Your Own Bullet Journal Budget Tracker

Instead of choosing from the dizzying array of online budgeting tools, here’s a novel thought: The best solution to keeping track of your money may be writing everything down with pen and paper.  

The bullet journal — or BuJo, for short — is an analog organizational system that can help you find the “calm in the chaos” (at least, according to the creator of the bullet journal, Ryder Carroll).

What sets the bullet journal apart from other lookalikes is it’s completely customizable. Each page has tiny bullets to use as a guide to track whatever you want. You can set goals, write down to-do lists and track your finances all in one place.

Unlike pre-designed planners, bullet journal budget trackers allow you to create spreads for your particular financial goals and tasks, including the visuals that will most inspire you to reach them.

So if you want to buy a house, for instance, you can color each brick of a house as you save for a down payment.

And if you’ve ever missed a reminder amid the constant pings from the calendar on your phone, you’ll appreciate that bullet journals offer a physical, visually pleasing alternative for tracking your bills.

And you don’t have to be creative to get started.

Alicia Geigel teaches bullet journaling workshops at Whim So Doodle in St. Petersburg, Florida. She typically shares layout ideas to get people comfortable with tracking their lives both personally and professionally on paper. Now she’s finding people are interested in using the bullet journals for their personal finances.

Currently, she is using her journal to save $2,500 for a trip to Italy.

“Since I do it every night and try to make it part of my routine, it just reminds me of the path I am trying to save on,” Geigel said.

If switching to a bullet journal system is too much for you to take on all at once, consider starting with just one or two of Geigel’s tips:

Tip #1: Create A Monthly Budget Tracker

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Unless you check your bank account every day, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s coming in and out of your budget at any given time. So write it down.

Just like a checkbook, write down your scheduled bills on the left and record expenses on the right. Every time you spend money, deduct it from your balance — this will hold you accountable. There should be no surprises when you look at your bank account.

Tip #2: Design a Visual Savings Goal

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Determine an object that motivates you to save money. Is it a jar? A piggy bank?

Design a savings goal you can track visually. Each time you put money in your savings account, shade in a portion of the object. It’s quite satisfying to see it come to life.

Tip #3: Draw a Line Graph to Show Debt Payoff

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Nothing is better than seeing your debt disappear. Draw a line graph to chart your debt payoff. Create a line for your credit cards, mortgage or car loan — as you pay them down, mark your progress on the graph.

Seeing the line go down can give you an extra push to pay it off faster.

Tip #4: Try a No-Spend Challenge

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Try a no-spend challenge by creating a calendar. Check off the days you didn’t spend money. Even if you have a setback, by seeing your successes on paper, you’ll want to do it more often!

Tip #5: Use a Habit Tracker

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Whether you want to break a bad habit or develop a new routine, a tracker can help you get there. Let’s say you want to pay bills on time. Acknowledge when you do it by filling in a box. The more boxes you see, the more it encourages the habit.

One of the great benefits of using a habit tracker in your bullet journal is that you can start to see patterns you might have missed before (like those budget-breaking lattes that sneak in around mid-week).

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to use a bullet journal. Figure out what works best for you. Before you know it, your finances will start to turn around.

Christie Post is a former supervising producer and host at The Penny Hoarder. You can see the videos she produces on YouTube. Subscribe and give her a shoutout @christiepost.

Staff writer Tiffany Wendln Connors contributed to this post.

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Outdated Money Advice – 12 Financial Assumptions You Should Reconsider

What was true 30 years ago isn’t necessarily true today. Few people would agree that cassette tapes produce the best possible sound or legwarmers are the height of fashion. And like technology, fashion, cultural values, and just about everything else in life, financial wisdom changes over time.

We all carry around certain financial assumptions we learned from our parents, our mentors, or that we read somewhere once upon a time. But those assumptions may no longer be true — or at least, not unquestionably true.

Here are 12 financial assumptions that are more nuanced than old-school conventional wisdom suggests, along with tips to know what’s right for your unique finances and goals.

1. More Education Is Better

Higher Education Cap Key To Success

Today’s Truth: More education is sometimes better, depending on your dream job and career path.

A college degree opens doors, and some careers require a master’s or other advanced degree. But higher education isn’t for everyone, and attaining more degrees don’t always make financial sense.

Student loan debt is now the second-highest form of debt in the United States after mortgage debt. It has surpassed both auto loan debt and credit card debt, with over $1.52 trillion owed in 2018, according to Forbes. That comes out to an average of $37,172 per graduating student. It’s a financial epidemic.

Young adults who don’t know what they want to do with their lives should consider taking a gap year before enrolling in college, picking a major, and trying to figure out how to pay for a college degree. College has become outrageously expensive; the average cost of one year’s tuition and fees at a private college for the 2018 to 2019 school year is $35,676, per data from U.S. News & World Report. Even if that cost stays frozen for the next four years — which it won’t — that would come to $142,704 over four years.

And while a college degree is useful across many fields, master’s and other advanced degrees are not. They are a very specific means to an end. My wife wanted to be a school counselor, for example, so she earned the requisite master’s degree in school counseling. Young adults should pursue advanced degrees only when they know what they want to do for a living and an advanced degree specifically helps on that career path.

Before deciding on an education path, do plenty of soul-searching. Then go about finding ways to reduce or avoid student loan debt entirely.

2. You Should Pay Off Your Student Loans Before Buying a Home

Student Loans Coins Stacked Home Mortgage Expensive Balancing

Today’s Truth: The decision to buy a home depends on your market, finances, and plans, not one single factor like student loan debt.

Total student loan debt has doubled over the last decade, while homeownership rates among young adults have plummeted. In 2004, the homeownership rate for adults under 35 sat at 43.6%. That fell to 34.3% by 2017, although it has risen slightly since. With so much student loan debt, it can be difficult for young adults to qualify for a mortgage. In addition to skewing debt-to-income ratios, student loans impact borrowers’ credit scores.

There are plenty of good reasons to rent (more on those shortly), but if your only reason is student loans, start running the numbers. Over time, homeownership can not only save you money on your monthly housing payment, but it can also help you build wealth. Look no further than a 2018 Harvard study that found that middle-aged homeowners have an average net worth 60 times higher than middle-aged renters.

It sometimes makes more sense to put money toward a down payment rather than paying off existing debts. After buying a home, you can always decide whether to pay off your student loans or mortgage first, or you can pay off neither right away and instead invest money elsewhere.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for the best place to put your money, just as there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether you should buy or rent a home.

3. Buying Is Always Better Than Renting

Rent Or Buy House Home Pink Blue

Today’s Truth: Buying sometimes often makes more financial sense, but it depends on a wide range of factors.

When you buy a home, you take an initial loss. That’s because buyers and sellers alike spend thousands of dollars on closing costs, including lender fees, title fees, real estate agent fees, and transfer taxes.

Over time, homeowners typically save money compared to renters, in the form of lower monthly payments, home appreciation, and gradually shrinking mortgage balances. But the process takes years, and how many years it takes depends on factors such as local market home values, rents, interest rates, and repair costs. That means that homeownership usually makes sense only for people who plan to stay in one home for at least a few years.

Further, homeownership sometimes involves unexpected costs. The roof needs to be replaced, or the furnace, or the wiring. You wake up to a normal day, and by lunchtime, you have a $5,000 bill you need to pay immediately. Beyond location stability and staying put for a while, homeowners also need financial stability. They need a much larger emergency fund than the average renter to cover sudden and unexpected home-related costs.

Before you rush into homeownership on the assumption that it’s the right financial move, read up on renting versus buying a home and the nuanced factors that go into the decision.

The assumption that “buying is better” doesn’t only apply to housing; it also extends to nearly everything in our lives. In most cases, it makes far more sense to rent high-end items you only plan to use once or twice, such as a wedding dress or high-end jewelry. If you want to swap out your car every two years, it often makes more sense to lease than to buy. Renting is sometimes better than buying, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

4. Your Home Is an Investment

House Expense Or Investment Grass Outdoors Dollar

Today’s Truth: Your home is an expense, and you should treat it accordingly.

A rental property is an investment because you buy it to generate cash flow and a return. A primary residence is an expense; it costs you money every month on the “Housing” line in your budget. Any equity you might have in it exists only on paper and is not investable to generate income or additional wealth.

Homeowners justify spending extra on a home — when both buying and renovating — by reassuring themselves, “I’m not spending this money; I’m investing it!” But this assumption is self-indulgent and self-deluding.

Consider Remodeling Magazine’s 2019 report on the average return on investment for common home improvements. They measure ROI as the percentage of a renovation’s cost that’s recovered through a higher home sale price. In their 2019 report, exactly zero home improvements delivered a positive ROI; every single one cost more than it returned in higher values.

The more you spend on housing, the less you can funnel into true investments, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate investment. Unless you house hack or do a live-in house flip, housing is an expense, not an investment.

5. You Should Spend 25% – 30% of Your Income on Housing

Household Living Expense Budget Calculator

Today’s Truth: Spending less is better for your long-term wealth, but some markets require more. When deciding what to spend on housing, remember that budgeting is a zero-sum game.

In an ideal scenario, you’d spend 0% of your income on housing by either house hacking or taking a job that provides free housing. However, reality is rarely ideal.

In some wildly expensive markets like San Francisco and Manhattan, single renters may not be able to find even a room for less than 50% of their net income. Housing costs are a problem for younger adults especially; USA Today reports that today’s 30-year-olds have spent an average of 45% of their total lifetime income on rent.

What people so often ignore about budgeting is that it’s a zero-sum game. If you spend more on housing, you have less to spend on transportation, food, entertainment, clothes, and investing to build wealth. That makes housing part of a larger lifestyle equation. A Manhattanite who spends 50% of their income on rent likely forgoes a car, so instead of spending $9,576 a year on transportation like the average American, they may spend $200 on public transportation.

I spend almost nothing on housing, but I spend a lot more than the average American on travel. There’s no magical percentage to spend on housing, so instead, look at your budget holistically, set your savings rate first, and then work backward to create a budget based on your priorities.

6. You Should Put at Least 20% Down on a Home

Down Payment Calculator House

Today’s Truth: Your money may serve you better elsewhere, and delaying homeownership to save a higher down payment is often counterproductive.

There’s a valid reason for the recommended 20% threshold for a down payment down on a house: If you put down at least 20%, you can avoid paying private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is effectively lost money. And in the case of FHA loans, that mortgage insurance doesn’t go away, even after you pay the principal balance down to below 80% of the property’s value.

But as irksome and wasteful as PMI is, sometimes it makes sense to just suck it up and make a smaller down payment.

First, if it would take you another four years of saving money to put together a 20% down payment, but you have enough for a smaller down payment now, it seems silly to sit by and wait when you’re ready to enter the housing market. Besides, there’s no telling what home prices will be in four years from now. What if you scrimp and save more money, only to find that home prices are 14% higher by then, and you still don’t have enough money?

Second, as mentioned earlier, your home is not an investment. Cash that you put into it is cash that can’t be invested in stocks, bonds, or investment real estate, which can produce passive income for you. Let’s say you invest an extra $50,000 in a down payment to reach the 20% threshold and avoid $2,000 a year in PMI and extra interest. At an 8% annual return, that $50,000 would have earned you $4,000 a year if you’d invested it elsewhere. So you save $2,000 a year on your mortgage, but at the cost of earning $4,000 a year elsewhere.

7. You Should Put the Bare Minimum Down on a Home

House Stack Of Cash Dollars

Today’s Truth: This is a risky move that could have significant negative consequences. Be careful not to overleverage yourself.

At the opposite end of the financial wisdom spectrum, other homebuyers assume they should put down the bare minimum. However, that didn’t work out so well for buyers in the mid-2000s who bought with 1% to 3% down — or, in some cases, no money down at all.

If housing prices drop, homeowners who put very little down can find themselves upside-down on their mortgage. Even worse, putting down almost nothing on a home can lead homebuyers to buy more house than they can afford.

Don’t assume you can afford to buy a home just because you have 3% of the purchase price saved. You also need cash for closing costs, an emergency fund, moving, furnishings, and potential repairs. While there are plenty of ways to pull together the down payment for a home, make sure you have enough cash set aside to live comfortably in that home.

8. You Should Pay Off Your Mortgage ASAP

Pay Off Debt Pen Paper

Today’s Truth: Paying off your mortgage early is about balancing opportunity and risk.

There are times when it absolutely, 100% makes sense to pay off your mortgage early. And there are others when it makes no sense whatsoever.

The first factor to consider is what you’re paying in interest. At a 3.5% interest rate, for example, you can effectively earn a 3.5% return by paying off your mortgage early. But you can almost certainly earn higher returns by investing that money elsewhere, such as the historical 7% to 10% returns offered by stocks.

If you’re paying 7% interest on your mortgage, that’s a different story. You may decide that a guaranteed 7% return by paying off the mortgage appeals to you more than chasing possible 7% to 10% returns elsewhere.

Another factor to consider is your age. The older you are, the less time you have to recover from losses, and the more vulnerable you are to sequence of returns risk. At 65, your risk tolerance is lower, and paying off your mortgage has a guaranteed return on investment by reducing your living expenses. At 25, however, why not chase those higher returns by investing aggressively? You have less to lose and more time to make it up.

9. You Should Keep 6 – 12 Months’ Expenses in Your Emergency Fund

Emergency Jar Coins Fund Reserve

Today’s Truth: Your cash reserves should be based on the stability of your income and expenses and your risk tolerance.

The median family income in 2017 was $75,938, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Does that mean the average family should keep that much money sitting around in cash? Heck no.

Don’t get me wrong; everyone should have an emergency fund. All households need some cash readily at hand for a sudden roof replacement or unexpected job loss. But how large that cash cushion should be varies from household to household.

For households with stable 9-to-5 income and expenses that remain relatively consistent from month to month, keeping one or two months’ expenses in cash could be plenty. To keep more would be to squander the opportunity to invest and earn strong returns. Cash has a negative return every year; it loses money to inflation, historically at a loss of around 2% per year.

Households with irregular incomes or expenses should keep more in cash as a thicker buffer to ride out the fluctuations. For them, the risk of several choppy months in a row is often more serious than the risk imposed by inflation. Read up on strategies to build an emergency fund when your income is irregular if your needs are different than the average 9-to-5 employee’s.

Finally, remember that a household’s expenses should ideally be far lower than their income. A family earning $75,938 should not be spending anywhere near that much, so even if they wanted to keep 12 months’ expenses in an emergency fund, their cash target would be far, far below that number.

10. You Shouldn’t Discuss Money With Friends & Family

Money Bags Group Of Men Discussing Money

Today’s Truth: Talking about your financial strategies and long-term goals is a great way to learn from each other. Just don’t get specific with exact numbers, and never, ever brag.

Spouting off how much you earn or how much you spent on your car is tacky. Sharing budgeting tips or tax strategies with a friend? That’s helpful for both of you.

There’s an old adage that says, “Smart people learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from others’ mistakes.” If we don’t discuss our experiences and financial strategies with others, we deny ourselves the chance to learn from each other’s mistakes.

I find it incredibly sad that so many people feel like they’re going it alone financially, suffering in silence and isolation. You’re not alone. Several of your friends and family members are going through similar struggles, but they’re reluctant to admit it or talk about it, just like you are.

Open the doors to start talking about money gradually. Share one of your long-term goals in an aspirational way, rather than a bragging way. Ask people for their experiences and opinions. For example, you might say, “We’re trying to tighten up our spending to save enough money to buy a house next year. It seems like you’ve done a good job with your budgeting; where were you able to cut back without losing your quality of life?”

You can share tips and ideas and hold one another accountable when you’re open to discussing money with friends and family. Just remember to never judge others and never show off financially.

11. It’s Better to Pay With a Debit Card Than a Credit Card

Credit Cards Chip

Today’s Truth: Like all tools, credit cards can be used constructively or irresponsibly. It’s up to you to use them wisely — or know yourself well enough to avoid them altogether.

My friend Renee travels internationally at least once a year and domestically many times a year. I’ve never known her to pay in full for her flight and accommodations. She wields travel rewards credit cards the way a magician flourishes playing cards, securing free flights or hotel stays with remarkable dexterity.

Credit cards aren’t inherently evil; they are merely tools. They can earn you money or cost you money depending on how you use them. But while you don’t need Renee’s skill to profit from them, you do need the discipline to pay your bill in full every month.

If you allow a balance to accumulate, it’s time to hit the pause button on your credit card usage. Take a pair of scissors to your cards and go back to the drawing board in your budgeting. Brush up on some of the hidden pros and cons of debit cards versus credit cards and practice discipline, whether that means paying your balance in full every month or not using a credit card at all.

12. Your Asset Allocation Should Be 100 Minus Your Age

Asset Allocation Stock Bonds Real Estate Cash 2

Today’s Truth: Yes, your asset allocation should shift with age, but the “Rule of 100” is dated and simplistic. The “Rule of 120” is better, if still oversimplified.

The “Rule of 100” dictates that you should subtract your age from 100 to determine what percentage of your portfolio you should invest in stocks. The rule goes on to say that the rest should be invested in bonds. It’s nice and neat and simple. It’s also bad advice.

Life expectancies are higher today than they were a generation ago, and bond returns are lower. That means that investors should invest more in stocks, and later in life, than they did a generation ago.

A better rule would be 120 minus your age to determine your stock exposure, or 110 minus your age if you’re more conservative. This ignores other asset classes, however; I personally invest in real estate to serve a similar purpose as bonds in my portfolio. As you get older, rebalance your portfolio periodically to ease your investments into more conservative assets. But don’t be too conservative, or you risk anemic returns.

Final Word

Times change, and so does financial wisdom.

Americans are increasingly responsible for their own finances and retirement planning, and that requires questioning the financial assumptions your parents and grandparents swore by. Personal finance in today’s world is marked by nuance, not rules written in stone.

When in doubt, ask for help. Bounce ideas around with friends and family. Get feedback from informed peers in personal finance Facebook groups. Hire a financial advisor for an hour or two to get personalized advice. Ask yourself what’s best for your financial situation and goals, and act accordingly.

What financial assumptions have you questioned recently?

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Your Career Is a Multimillion-Dollar Investment, So Manage It Wisely

Over the course of a 40-year career, the average American with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about $1.8 million.

When viewed by gender, the cumulative earnings shift somewhat, with women taking home $1.4 million over four decades compared to an average of $2.1 million for men, according to estimates by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business,

The substantial gender pay gap aside, when viewed in this way, it becomes far more obvious just how valuable one’s career can be. And those figures are just the averages. For those who manage a career as actively and shrewdly as they might an investment portfolio, aggressively working to maximize its potential as a financial asset all along the way, a career’s worth of earnings could be worth far, far more.

“The most important part of thinking of your job as an investment is actually pretty basic: realizing that you don’t just have to make an investment, you have to manage it as well,” says from Emmet Savage, chief investor at MyWallSt, a learning and investing app.

What does that mean exactly? Here are some ways to help make the most of your career arc and the amount of financial gain, growth, and opportunity you realize over the course of a lifetime.

Change Your Mindset

In many ways, treating your career as a multimillion-dollar investment begins with altering the way you view work in general.

“For most people, a job is just that. Something they do as a ‘must’ to pay bills without really thinking about their end goal or ideal outcomes,” says 35-year-old Greg Dorban, chief marketing officer for Ledger Bennett.

Dorban, however, never viewed work on such simplistic terms. In the space of just five years, he progressed from intern to co-owner of a multinational marketing agency that generates eight-figure revenues, a meteoric rise he attributes to starting out with a much broader view of work than merely making ends meet.

Early on Dorban established a North Star for himself – the goal of owning a business in short order. This shining beacon guided his subsequent steps, inspiring him to take actions to rise above the day to day hustle of earning a living, including consistently investing in himself and in the training needed to maximize his professional potential.

“Building the right skills will be the best investment you can make as the payoff positively impacts so many areas of your life, not just your wallet,” says Dorban.

The underlying message of his story, Dorban adds, is that when considering your career, allow yourself to think bigger than simply bringing home a paycheck to cover the next rent or mortgage payment. Then identify the training, new skills, or specific experiences and growth opportunities needed to reach that higher goal.

Maximize the Benefits of Everything You Do

The idea of always being “on” and bringing your professional A-game wherever you go can be off-putting to some, but there’s something to be said for recognizing the potential of all situations, including the most ordinary of moments.

Erica McCurdy, a certified master coach and managing member of McCurdy Solutions Group, calls this utilizing and maximizing the benefits of everything you do, which she says can accelerate the power of your time and efforts with regard to your career.

This includes “making sure to introduce yourself to everyone at a meeting and at every place you pause on the way to and from the meeting,” says McCurdy. It also means collecting business cards, connecting with each person on LinkedIn, including a personal message, and scheduling coffee meetings with those people who pique your interest.

“Never forget to send thank you notes to those who helped make the day possible,” adds McCurdy. “Finish up the day by updating your career and contact log so you don’t lose any valuable information.”

There are countless points along the way where you might come into contact with someone who can open a new door for you or somehow play a pivotal role in moving your career to the next level, so keep your eyes open to the possibilities.

Don’t Pass Up Free Money

Maximizing your earnings over the course of a career also means taking some very practical steps as well with the financial opportunities your career presents.

This includes being sure to enroll in an employer sponsored 401(k) plan, particularly if the employer matches your contributions, as that match is free money and can add up over the course of a lifetime.

“The first and best advice I give to new hires is to contribute the maximum to their 401(k),” says careers analyst Laura Handrick of “Many don’t understand the concept of compound interest, so as an HR professional, it’s important to educate employees.”

Handrick also suggests that if your company offers financial planning workshops, be sure to attend. This is another opportunity to expand your financial skills at no cost to you.

But 401(k) matches are merely one example of the financial opportunities available through your workplace.

Take Advantage of Tuition Reimbursement

Many companies offer tuition reimbursement programs to help cover the costs of continuing education for employees who want to go back to school and obtain degrees or certifications.

Brent Michaels, a registered nurse and creator of the website Debt & Cupcakes, says these offers have financial value on multiple levels.

“I graduated from nursing school with minimal student loan debt and have been able to work toward my Bachelor of Science in nursing and other certifications without spending a dime,” he explained. “In addition, as I complete classes, I grow professionally and personally, and the knowledge from these courses helped me secure promotions and business opportunities that would not have been available to me otherwise.”

Even just earning certifications, says Michaels, allows him to stand out as a motivated employee, which pays off in spades over the long run.

…and On the Job Training

Obtaining an advanced degree or certification isn’t the only way to distinguish yourself and maximize career earning potential. Many employers offer on the job training related to specific tasks the organization deems important, said Michaels. Don’t pass up this opportunity, either. You may also want to actively search out such opportunities if they’re not openly available.

“I knew that project management was needed for a promotion I was hoping to obtain in the future, but I had no experience. I intentionally volunteered to work on projects so that I could network with the project managers,” he explained. “I developed relationships and obtained free project management training. This cost nothing more than my time, and allowed me to secure a promotion a few years later that increased my salary by over 25 percent.”


Your network is everything; use it to maximize your ROI.

“Let’s face it, you can have the best resume, you can be the best employee out there, but having people of trust who can vouch for you is irreplaceable. Nothing can beat that,” begins Peter Koch, creator of the site Seller at Heart, which is focused on how to save and make extra money.

Koch is obviously on to something: As many as 85% of jobs are filled via networking, according to a LinkedIn survey.

“This means that when you’re searching for new career opportunities to boost your pay, it really is who you know,” continues Koch. “If you’re able to make good impressions on others in your field and provide value to them, they’ll be happy to recommend you next time their company has an opening you could fill. Employers want to build a team of people they trust, and a personal recommendation from a colleague will always carry more weight than an unknown applicant emailing their resume.”

Need an added reason why networking is so important? Switching jobs is often a better way to increase your salary more significantly, as opposed to waiting for a raise at your current company. In fact, those who leave their employers to take a new job are realizing pay raises that are about one-third larger than those who stay put.

As of this past July, wages for job hoppers grew 3.8% from a year earlier, compared with 2.9% for those who opted to stay with their current employer, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Lean Out

All of these tips and tactics really lead to what career coach Denise Riebman refers to as “leaning out” with your career. Ribeman recently gave a keynote speech about building your career capital — here’s what that means.

“It’s really about doing a skill and knowledge gap analysis and asking where you do you want to go to in your career and investing in yourself to get there,” she explains. “See who is a couple chapters ahead of you and identify the gaps to get there.”

And like Koch, Riebman says a critical part of leaning out means actively expanding that professional network, or having what she calls an “open network,” which will ultimately help you to be more successful professionally and financially over the long term.

“Traditionally people like to stay in our tribes, among people we know, people we went to school with,” said Riebman. “The problem is that those people have same ideas and same information as you. Having an open network is about building your career capital.”

Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

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Lifestyles of the Rich and Foolish

It’s the first of April. You know what that means. Spring is here! Your friends and family are pulling April Fools’ Day pranks. And my tree allergies are kicking my butt. Every year, tree pollen makes my life miserable. This year is no different.

Facebook kindly reminded me this morning that three years ago, Kim and I were in Asheville, North Carolina. After wintering in Savannah, Georgia, we’d resumed our tour of the U.S. by RV.

While in Asheville, we toured the Biltmore Estate, the largest home in the U.S. This 250-room chateau contains 179,000 square feet of floor space — including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces — and originally sat on 195 square miles of land. (Today, the estate “only” contains 8000 acres.)

The Biltmore Estate

“This feels like Downton Abbey but in North Carolina,” I said as we walked the endless halls. Just as Downton Abbey documented the excesses of British upper class, so too the Biltmore sometimes feels like an example of how rich Americans indulged in decadence.

George Washington Vanderbilt II, the man who built Biltmore, was a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. His grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was born poor in 1794, but by the time he died in 1877 he had become one of the richest men in the world. During his lifetime, he built a fortune first from steamships and then as a prominent railroad tycoon.

By family standards, grandson George didn’t have a lot of money. He inherited about $7 million, and drew income from a $5 million trust fund. He decided to use the bulk of his fortune to build a huge house high in the Appalachians. Work on the Biltmore Estate began in 1889, when George was 26 years old. Six years and $5 million later, he moved into his palace. (That $5 million would be roughly $90 million in today’s dollars.)

Strolling the grounds of the Biltmore Estate got me thinking about the stories we hear of wealthy people who squander their riches. How and why do they do this? Are there lessons from their stories that you and I can put to use?

We hear all the time about the “lifestyles of the rich and famous”. Today, on April 1st, let’s look at some lifestyles of the rich and foolish.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Foolish

There are so many stories of athletes and entertainers who have blown big fortunes that it’s tough to know where to start. Who should we pick on first? Since I’ve never been a fan of Nicolas Cage — and since he seems to be especially bad with money — let’s use him an example.

Over a period of fifteen years, Cage earned more than $150 million. He blew through that money buying things like:

  • Fifteen homes, including an $8 million English castle that he never stayed in once.
  • A private island.
  • Four luxury yachts.
  • A fleet of exotic cars, including a Lamborghini that used to belong to the Shah of Iran.
  • A dinosaur skull he won after a bidding contest with Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • A private jet.

It’s not fair to characterize Cage as “broke” — he’s still a bankable movie star — but his net worth is reportedly only about $25 million. (That’s like someone with an average income having a net worth of roughly $25,000.) He could be worth ten times as much but his foolish financial habits have caused him woe.

Cage got in trouble with the IRS for failing to pay millions of dollars in taxes. He’s been sued by multiple companies for failing to repay loans. His business manager says that he’s tried to warn Cage that his lifestyle exceeds his means, but the actor won’t listen.

Cage is but one of many celebrities who have done dumb things with money. Other prominent examples include:

  • MC Hammer sold the rights to his songs to raise money after being bankrupted by his lavish lifestyle. Hammer earned more than $33 million in the early nineties, but spent the money on a $12 million mansion (with gold-plated gates), a fleet of seventeen vehicles, two helicopters, and extravagant parties. [source, source]
  • Actress Kim Basinger paid $20 million to buy the town of Braselton, Georgia in 1989. When Basinger filed for bankruptcy just four years later, she was forced to sell the town. [source]
  • On the night of 01 February 1976, Elvis Presley decided he wanted a Fool’s Gold Loaf, a special sandwich made of hollowed bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a pound of bacon. He and his entourage flew from Memphis to Denver. The group ate their sandwiches and then flew home. Price: $50,000 – $60,000. [source]
  • Even authors get in on the act. Writer Mark Twain made tons of money through his work, but he lost much of it to bad investments, mostly in new inventions: a bed clamp for infants, a new type of steam engine, and a machine designed to engrave printing plates. Twain was a sucker for get rich quick schemes. [source, source]

When it comes to frittering way fortunes, it’s hard to compete with sports superstars. In a 2009 Sports Illustrated article about how and why athletes go broke, Pablo S. Torre wrote that after two years of retirement, “78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.” Within five years of retirement, roughly 60% of former NBA players are in similar positions.

Some examples:

  • Boxer Mike Tyson earned over $300 million in his professional career. He lost it all, spending the money on cars, jewels, pet tigers, and more. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. [source]
  • When Yoenis Cespedes signed a new $75 million contract with the New York Mets, he drove a new vehicle each day during the first week of training camp, including a Lamborghini Aventador ($397,000) and an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione ($299,000). [source]
  • Basketballer Vin Baker earned $100 million during his career. He’s now worth $500,000. He manages a Starbucks store in a small town in Rhode Island. (To be fair, Baker sees to be turning his life around, which is awesome.) [source]
  • Hall-of-fame pitcher Curt Schilling earned $112 million during 20 years in the big leagues. It wasn’t enough to keep up with his spending. Plus he lost $50 million through the collapse of a company he owned. In 2013, he held a “fire sale” to avoid bankruptcy.

It can be tough to sympathize with these folks. Used wisely, their immense fortunes could sustain them and their families for a long time. Instead, they squander their money on fleeting pleasures and the trappings of wealth.

Still, I believe it’s best to keep the schadenfreude in check. “There but for the grace of God” and all that, right? I’ve seen plenty of examples of average folks who have wasted smaller windfalls. In fact, this sort of thing seem to be the rule rather than the exception.

But why does this happen? The answer might be Sudden-Wealth Syndrome.

Lottery winners have the same kinds of problems. A 2001 article in The American Economic Review found that after receiving half their jackpots, the typical lotto winner had only put about 16% of that money into savings. It’s estimated that over a quarter of lottery winners go bankrupt.

Take Bud Post: He won $16.2 million in 1988. Within weeks of receiving his first annual payment of nearly half a million dollars, he’d spent $300,000. During the next few years, Post bought boats, mansions, and airplanes, but trouble followed him everywhere. “I was much happier when I was broke,” he’s reported to have said. When he died in 2006, Post was living on a $450 monthly disability check.

Sudden-Wealth Syndrome

In 2012, ESPN released a documentary called Broke that explores the relationship between pro athletes and money. How does sudden wealth affect young men? What happens when highly-competitive athletes with high incomes hang out together? Lots of stupid stuff, as it turns out.

Here’s a nine-minute montage from Broke in which wealth manager Ed Butowsky talks about why athletes get into trouble with money:

Broke is an interesting film. The players speak candidly about the mistakes they’ve made: buying 25 pairs of shoes at one time, buying fur coats they never wore, buying cars they never drove. They’re not proud of their pasts — some are ashamed — but they’re willing to talk about the problem in the hopes they can help others avoid doing the same dumb things in the future.

Curious how much your favorite actor or athlete earns? Check out Celebrity Net Worth, a website devoted to tracking the financial health of people in the public eye.

Broke does a good job of explaining why our sports heroes can’t seem to make smart money moves. The problem is Sudden-Wealth Syndrome. Essentially, young folks who earn big bucks don’t get a chance to “practice” with money before they’re buried with wealth.

The typical person earns a little when they’re young, but watches their salary grow slowly with time. Their income peaks during their forties and fifties. As a result, they get time to make mistakes with small amounts of money first which means (in theory) that they’re less likely to blow big bucks down the road.

On the other hand, athletes (and entertainers) have a completely different earning pattern. They leave school to instant riches. For a few years, they earn great gobs of money. But usually their income declines sharply with time — until it stops altogether.

Here’s a (pathetic) chart I created to help visualize this phenomenon:

Sudden Income vs. Normal Income

Athletes and entertainers need to figure out how to make five years of income last for fifty years. This never occurs to most of them. “[A pro athlete] can’t live like a king forever,” says Bart Scott in ESPN’s Broke. “But you can live like a prince forever.”

Sudden-Wealth Syndrome doesn’t just affect athletes and actors. Lottery winners experience it too. So do average folks who inherit a chunk of change or business owners who sell their companies.

The fundamental problem is that nobody ever teaches us how to handle a windfall. Windfalls are rare, and in most cases they can’t be planned for. (Some folks might be able to plan for an inheritance or the sale of a business, but these situations are relatively uncommon.) As a result, when the average person happens into a chunk of change, they spend it.

Here’s what you should do instead.

How NOT to Waste a Windfall

When you receive a windfall, whether it’s a tax refund, an inheritance, a gift, or from any other source, it’s like you’ve been given a second chance. Although you may have made money mistakes in the past, you now have a chance to fix those mistakes (or some of them, anyhow) and start down the path of smart money management.

It can be tempting to spend your windfall on toys, trips, and other things that you “deserve,” but doing so will leave you in the same place you were before you received the windfall. And if that place was chained to debt, you’ll be just as unhappy as you’ve always been.

If you receive a chunk of cash, I recommend that you:

  • Keep five percent to treat yourself and your family. Let’s be realistic. If you receive $1,000 or $10,000 or $100,000 unexpectedly, you’re going to want to spend some of it. No problem. But don’t spend all of it. I used to recommend spending one percent of a windfall on yourself, but from talking to people, that’s not enough. Now I suggest spending five percent on fun. That means $50 of a $1,000 windfall, $500 of a $10,000 windfall, or $5,000 of a $100,000 windfall.
  • Pay any taxes due. Depending on the source of your money, you might owe taxes on it at the end of the year. If you forget this fact and spend the money, you can end up in a bind when the taxes come due. Consult a tax professional. If needed, set aside enough to pay your taxes before you do anything else.
  • Pay off debt. Doing so will generally provide the greatest possible return on your investment (a 20 percent return if your credit cards charge you 20 percent). It’ll also free up cash flow; if you pay off a card with a $50 minimum monthly payment, that’s $50 extra you’ll have available each month. Most of all, repaying debt will relieve the psychological weight you’ve been carrying for so long.
  • Fix the things that are broken. After you’ve eliminated any existing debt, use your windfall to repair whatever is broken in your life. Start with your own health. If you’ve been putting off a trip to the dentist or a medical procedure, take care of it. Do the same for your family. Next, fix your car or the roof or the sidewalk. Use this opportunity to patch up the things you’ve been putting off.
  • Deposit the rest of the money in a safe account. It can be tempting to spend the rest of your windfall on a new motorcycle or new furniture or new house. Don’t. After attending to your immediate needs, deposit the remaining money in a new savings account separate from the rest of your bank accounts — and then leave this money alone.

To successfully manage a windfall, you must allow the initial euphoria to pass, getting over the urge to spend the money today. Live as you were before. Meanwhile, calculate how far your windfall could go. Most people have unrealistic expectations about how much $10,000 or $100,000 can buy.

In 2009, I received an enormous windfall. The old J.D. would have gone crazy with the money. The new, improved model of me was prepared, and made measured moves designed to favor long-term happiness over short-term happiness.

Today, the bulk of my windfall remains in the same place it’s been for the past five years: an investment account. That cash eases my mind. It helps me sleep easy at night. And that’s more rewarding than spending it on new toys could ever be.

Setting a Good Example

Not everyone who gets rich quickly does dumb things with money. Especially as the plight of pro athletes becomes better known, there are prominent examples of young superstars making savvy money moves. They’re learning from the lessons of those who came before.

Take Toronto Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard, for instance. This 27-year-old NBA MVP earns $23 million per year — but still clips coupons for his favorite restaurant. He drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. Sure, he bought himself a Porsche, but he’s not interested in flash and bling. “I’m not gonna buy some fancy watch just to show people something fancy on my wrist,” he says. [source]

Jamal Mashburn has made wise use of his wealth. So has LeBron James, who takes his investment advice from Warren Buffett:

Here are other superstars who act as money bosses:

  • During his 12-year career in the NBA, Junior Bridgeman never earned more than $350,000. Unlike most players, however, he planned ahead. He recognized his basketball income would eventually vanish. He bought a Wendy’s fast-food franchise and learned the business inside-out. He became a hands-on owner. He expanded from one store to three to six — and then to a small empire. Today, twenty-five years after retirement, Bridgeman owns more than 160 Wendy’s restaurants and 120 Chili’s franchises. His company employs 11,000 people and generates over half a billion in revenue every year. His personal net worth tops $400 million. [source]
  • Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — who just retired last week — is a shining example of how to handle sudden wealth correctly. The 29-year-old earned over $53 million for playing on the field — and hasn’t spent any of it. Here are his own words: “To this day, I still haven’t touched one dime of my signing bonus or NFL contract money. I live off my marketing money and haven’t blown it on any big-money expensive cars, expensive jewelry or tattoos and still wear my favorite pair of jeans from high school.” [source]
  • Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch has a similar story. During his twelve-year NFL career, Lynch has collected nearly 57 million from his contract. Reportedly, he hasn’t spent a penny of that money. Instead, he’s been cautious to live only off his endorsement earnings. Whether this is true or not, Lynch is known to be a good example to his teammates, helping them with their 401(k)s and other financial issues. [source]

Sometimes superstars who have been poor with money have a flash of insight and they’re able to turn things around. Former NFL player Phillip Buchanon is a perfect example. After watching ESPN’s Broke, he realized he was headed for trouble. He mended his ways and started managing his money wisely. Now he’s written a book with advice for other folks who are fortunate enough to encounter a windfall. [source]

When people make a lot of money, they’re able to spend a lot of money. Sometimes the super-rich can afford to build a place like the Biltmore Estate. The problem isn’t a single extravagant purchase, but a lavish lifestyle in which they spend more than they earn. Real wealth isn’t about earning money — it’s about keeping money.

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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