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by Trent Hamm 03.30.2009
Posted In: Organization at 03:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Book Review: Detox Your Desk

My desk is a mess.

It’s not so much a factor of having too much stuff - virtually everything on it has a purpose. The problem is that I collect too many little pieces of paper and various other items and I tend to not spend enough time organizing them and dealing with them in a constructive fashion. My desk usually winds up being a mess of notes jotted on pieces of paper, magazines, photocopied articles from the library, books, photographs, and various correspondence that I need to attend to or file away somewhere.

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by Trent Hamm 01.14.2009
Posted In: Organization at 01:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Update on Reselling Used Clothing

After my recent article about new restrictions on used children’s clothes from the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), I received a flood of correspondence from angry and confused readers who were quite upset with the proposed changes. I compiled a number of these emails and forwarded them on to a few email addresses at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and to my local congresspeople.

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by Trent Hamm 01.13.2009
Posted In: Organization at 10:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Review: Scratch Beginnings

One of the most common complaints I hear about is that I’m writing financial suggestions for people who have already “made it.” To a certain extent, it’s true - many of the situations I write about assume you already have a certain level of income and financial security.

But what of those situations where such financial security isn’t a given? I hear often from readers who are truly stretching every dime they can get, even without the burden of a house payment or any significant debt - they simply aren’t bringing in much money, and they have to be creative with their choices. What can we learn from them?

That’s basically the premise behind Scratch Beginnings. The author, Adam Shepard, decided to take on the myths about what it takes to be successful in America. He started off with $25 in cash, the clothes on his back, and a gym bag (no job or anything else) and attempted to build the American dream in one year without using any of his contacts or personal accomplishments (in other words, a blank resume). His goal was to have, after one year, $2,500, a working automobile, and a furnished apartment.

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by Trent Hamm 12.16.2008
Posted In: Organization at 10:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Synergizing Hobbies and Career for Greater Personal Success

outliersSince reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (and reviewing it), the concept of what makes an individual exceptionally successful in a particular area has been heavy on my mind.

In the book, Gladwell mostly argues that exceptional success is the result mostly of factors outside of our control: demographics, genetics, and so on. However, he does point to a few tantalizing clues of things we can control for increasing our own chances at personal success.

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by Trent Hamm 12.02.2008
Posted In: Organization at 06:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Trent Hamm Answers Reader Mail

Each Monday, The Simple Dollar opens up the reader mailbags and answers 10 to 20 simple questions offered up by the readers on personal finance topics and many other things. Got a question? Ask it in the comments. You might also enjoy the archive of earlier reader mailbags.

As usual, we’ll start things off with a few links to older articles that directly answer questions I’ve heard recently. A few people have asked for suggestions for books on how to live cheap. Here are four suggestions (besides my own book):
The Complete Tightwad Gazette
America’s Cheapest Family
The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches
The Frugal Duchess

And now for some great reader questions!

My wife is pregnant and our first kid is due in April. It really is a miracle, but obviously money is always on the mind. Would it be better to:
1.) Buy life insurance in case something happens
2.) Start saving for their college
3.) Pay down our house payment to rid ourselves of the devil called PMI
4.) Pay down our very low (less than 2%) interest student loans that my wife and I have ($25g or so)

— Luke

Throw out No. 4 immediately. Compared to the others, it’s a very poor choice. Stick with the minimum payments on that one.

I would look into term life insurance for both you and your spouse, just in case. Many insurance salesmen will try to sell you more than you need; you should strive to replace one’s salary for a few years, plus enough to cover burial expenses. This shouldn’t cost you too much, though.

I’d also start a 529 plan for the unborn child. Start it with one of you as beneficiary right now and set up a regular contribution plan, then when the child is born change the beneficiary. You don’t need to contribute a ton to this one, either; $50 or $100 a month will give you a huge boost in 19 years or so.

I’d probably focus most heavily on getting rid of the PMI. Get your mortgage down to 80%, then refinance that thing. It’ll be more financially beneficial for you over the long run than almost anything you could do.

I’m a gin and tonic fan myself. What is your favorite gin?
— Tyler

I am highly partial to Bombay Sapphire for the gin. I’ve tried several different kinds and I keep coming back to it.

More important for a great gin and tonic, though, is good tonic water. Skip the Schweppes or the Canada Dry or the store brand. Instead, look around for Fever-Tree tonic water. I swear by it, but I have a hard time finding it locally.

I am currently a college student. Throughout high school I worked really hard to earn scholarships and save money for college. During my third semester in college, I started CoOping (if you are not familiar with this, it is where a college student works for a company that does work related to the student’s major, and the college student earns money and gets work experience). Not only am I funding my entire education, thanks to scholarships and CoOp, but I also have a lot of money just sitting in the bank earning no interest (on the range of about an extra $5,000 - $10,000). I am 21, and I have thought the best choice would be to wait until I make a down payment on a future house until I start investing long-term or putting money in a 401k. So I have been trying to put money in short-term CDs. However, I hear that CDs don’t even keep up with inflation at times (such as now - I think). Is there anything I can do with this spare money for short-term investing with little risk other than CDs? Is this the proper approach - waiting to invest after I purchase my first home (which I plan to purchase maybe 2-3 years after college)?
— Tim

CDs are probably your best choice. Given your situation, I would go CD shopping, perhaps using the CD rate tool at Bankrate.com. Allow yourself to look at CDs that mature when you’ll actually need the money - if you know you won’t need the money for three years, then look at CDs up to 36 months, for example.

I’m almost sure you’ll find a CD much better than what you’re buying right now. They’re a pretty good choice if you’re seeking a simple investment choice that keeps your balance safe.

Do you keep tabs of your web site's readers? How many did you have the day you began? How many at 6 months, 1 year, 2 years?
— Mol

Well, I started The Simple Dollar in November 2006. Let’s use Google Analytics to check my site usage.

During my first month, November 2006, The Simple Dollar had 6,287 visits and 17,080 page views.

During my sixth month, April 2007, The Simple Dollar had 288,301 visits and 586,509 page views.

During my 12th month, October 2007, The Simple Dollar had 423,359 visits and 864,551 page views.

During my 24th month, October 2008, The Simple Dollar had 626,939 visits and 1,178,976 page views.

Other than astronomical growth during the second and third months of the site’s existence, the growth has actually been extremely steady on average (with a few months of fluctuation).

If you are frugal and smart, you have a credit union as your bank. However, my credit union does not have safety deposit boxes. Boxes seem like they are becoming a rarity in my area. The only bank that has them is the BofA in the next town, and that branch is closing. I’ve switched to a fire-proof “go” box, but are there better alternatives?
— Mikey

I highly disagree with your first sentence. Credit unions are good for some things but not so good at others. For example, compare them to an online for-profit bank. Such banks can offer a higher interest rate than credit unions can because credit unions must pay for brick-and-mortar infrastructure. However, credit unions do have the advantage of manually underwriting any borrowing you might want to do, which means they’re a great place to go to get loans.

One option would be to open an “emergency fund” savings account at another local bank and use them for a safe deposit box. That’s probably the option I would use in your situation.

If money were no object, would you send your children to a private school?
— William

I would be open to it, but it would depend on the specific school.

I’d want to know about the school in detail. I’d want to tour it and perhaps take a look at the classes offered there. I’d ask around for referrals from people I trust in the community.

If it measured up, I certainly would send my child there. My primary motivation would be for my children to get the best education available to them, and if that meant a private school in my area and money didn’t matter then a private school is what they’d have.

Where do you purchase your Certificates of Deposit (CDs)? Are the online banks reputable?
— Chris

I buy my CDs through my primary bank, ING Direct. It’s been incredibly easy; just a few clicks and it’s purchased.

I have more faith, actually, in an online bank than I do in a teller-based bank in my local community. With a teller-based bank, you have other members of the community who have access to your personal financial information — and that, frankly, makes me nervous. I’ve known bank employees who openly gossip about the account status of people who bank there. With the online banks, you’re largely just a number; rather private.

If an online bank is associated with a large financial institution and the accounts are FDIC insured, I actually feel more secure with an online bank.

Do you actually practice all of the stuff you write about?
— Gillian

I try almost everything I mention on The Simple Dollar. Obviously, sometimes I mention tactics that simply aren’t routinely applicable in my current life. For example, frugal dating tactics - I’m not a part of the singles scene, so I don’t have a good opportunity to try them out. My wife and I tend to spend almost every evening home with the kids.

Quite often, I’m innately curious and I want to see if things work. Can I really make homemade laundry detergent that works? Does baking soda and water really do a good job at cleaning grout? How much money do CFLs really save? I’m naturally curious and following these questions often lead directly to posts.

In what areas of your life are you NOT frugal?
— Shawn

Our big area of splurging is food. I confess, although I do use shopping lists for my groceries, I tend to choose food items almost entirely based on quality and not on price. We buy a lot of organics and a lot of farm-fresh poultry products. We buy meat directly from a butcher as well.

When we do buy items, we’ve moved from just buying lots of things to rarely buying things - but when we do buy things, we buy high quality items. Rather than buying tons of cheap items for wall decorations, we’re now slowly buying high-quality items (original art, for example) that click with both of us, for example. We plan for these purchases pretty carefully, but we’re willing to spend for quality items that will last us forever.

Do you participate in meetups with other bloggers? If so, which ones?
— Joely

I’m willing to participate in such meetups, but rural central Iowa isn’t a hotbed of blogging activity. There is apparently a regular blogger meetup in Des Moines, but I’ve never attended it — it would take me almost an hour each way to go there for a one hour meetup, so I usually find that I have something more high priority to do.

My wife and I have discussed going on a long trip this coming summer to a few large cities. If we do so, I’d be willing to have meetups with readers in any large cities we go to: meet somewhere, have a drink and chat freely about whatever.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at www.thesimpledollar.com. If you have a question that you would like answered, ask in the commments on his blog.

by Trent Hamm 11.25.2008
Posted In: Organization at 03:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seven Tips for a Thrifty Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is in two days, and it’s likely that most of you have plans of some sort: getting together with family, eating a tremendously large meal, enjoying some football on television, getting caught up on your sleep, and so on. Some of you may have already begun on those plans - I know that for my own family’s Thanksgiving, the turkey is already slowly thawing as you read this.

Of course, with such a big spread (and also with the requisite travel for many), Thanksgiving can often be a very expensive holiday. Here are seven tactics I’ve found over the last year that can help mitigate the expenses of this costly day.

Freeze leftovers in manageable containers. Sure, freezing leftover turkey is a common tactic, but many people make one big mistake when doing it: they jam multiple pounds of turkey into individual bags, then when they go to thaw some out for later use, they either talk themselves out of it (thinking that they don’t need so much food) or they unthaw a multi-pound bag and let much of it go to waste.

Instead of freezing such a tremendous amount of food in a few big containers, pare it down into a lot of smaller containers (Ziploc freezer bags work well). This way, when you do choose to unthaw some over the next several months (frozen turkey is good for six months or so), you can easily unthaw just the amount you need - and no food goes to waste.

Don’t waste the carcass. Many people are happy to toss the leftover bones and small amount of meat left over after carving up the turkey. Don’t. That carcass can be used to create a lot of tremendous broth that can also be frozen and used to make simple, flavorful dishes.

Just take the entire carcass and toss it into the biggest pan you have. You can also toss in the neck of the turkey and the giblets (but not the liver). Add a chopped yellow onion, a cup of dry white wine, a bit of pepper, and a chopped stalk of celery, and let the whole thing simmer for three or four hours until the broth tastes tremendous.

When it’s done, remove all of the large solid pieces (bone, etc.), leaving nothing but broth, and store that broth in Ziploc bags in the freezer, two cups or so to a bag. This stuff is tremendous for any homemade soup or anything you wish to make - just add egg noodles to it for an amazing homemade soup. You can also use it in casseroles to great effect.

Go potluck If you’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, go potluck with it. Encourage all guests to bring a side dish, then just focus your efforts (and expenses) on the turkey and other staples. This not only saves money, but greatly reduces stress as well, as you have far fewer dishes to prepare.

For some, this may seem too forward, but remember that quite often people volunteer to bring a side dish - and when they volunteer, you should always accept that dish. It makes the person volunteering happy and takes stress off of your shoulders as well.

Use the environment for decorations. Instead of using tired, store-purchased decorations to make your setting look festive, take a walk outdoors the day before Thanksgiving and look for appropriate natural decorations. Pine cones, acorns, bright red maple leaves, cuttings from a pine tree, and other such decorations, laid carefully at the center of the table, are not only free, but they also look gorgeous and can smell quite nice, too.

Parks and wooded areas are great places to gather this material. Take along a small bag and pick up anything that appears to have potential - you don’t have to use everything that you pick up. Plus, a walk in nature the day before the big meal can help you de-stress if the holiday season is dragging you down.

Encourage guests to bring their own leftover container. This does several things at once. First, it encourages people to take leftover food with them, giving you less to deal with in the cleanup process.

More importantly, it eliminates the risk of (accidentally) losing a leftover container if someone forgets to return it - and it also saves the guests the effort of having to remember to return the container. My parents have lost many nice food storage containers over the years when packing them full of leftovers and sending them with guests. The guests often simply forget to return the containers.

Don’t overspend on the “extra” items - like wine. At many holiday meals, hosts often sweat and worry about making sure that all of the minor details are perfect - and often overspend on those details. One of my relatives, for example, obsesses over wine - often winding up buying several bottles, most of which go untasted or only partially drunk.

Instead of getting caught up in the details, take it easy. The joy of the holiday comes not from the “perfect” bottle of wine, but from enjoying time with family. For the details, just pick something simple and inexpensive - stop by your local wine shop and just get a bottle or two of a very low cost but solid table wine. Virtually everyone at your table will be thrilled with it, it will all get enjoyed, and you won’t have several expensive and only partially empty bottles left at the end of the meal. Best of all, you will have saved yourself quite a bit of money.

Similar logic applies to almost every side dish you can prepare: go simple and don’t prepare tons of options. This reduces your cost greatly without reducing the quality of the meal at all.

Use the opportunity when family is gathered to discuss important matters. For many families, Thanksgiving is the only time when everyone is gathered together in one place. That also means it can be the perfect time to discuss family matters - how to help your parents in their golden years, for example, or other such issues.

Many people opt not to talk about such things at Thanksgiving, not wanting to “ruin” a family moment, but often the reverse is true: if such things are not talked about, they end up painting the holiday with a sense of regret, of an opportunity missed. Take advantage of the holiday - or the day after - to handle such important discussions while everyone is gathered, reasonably rested, and relaxed. Doing so can save you a great deal of peace of mind - and also likely save you all some money as well.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at www.thesimpledollar.com.

by Trent Hamm 11.11.2008
Posted In: Organization at 01:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Review: The Myth of Multitasking

This book attracted me from the title alone - The Myth of Multitasking is something I’ve observed over and over again in my own life. In fact, I’m observing it right now - I can write better and faster if I shut down all distractions: my email program, my web browser, my instant messaging programs, my phone, and my office door.

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by Trent Hamm 11.04.2008
Posted In: Organization at 01:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Most Useful Free (and Open) Software for Mac

About two years ago, I wrote a very popular piece for my blog, The Simple Dollar, called 30 useful Pieces Of Free (and Open) Software for Windows. In it, I talked about how I had a new Dell laptop and that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on additional software for it, so I went hunting. I sought out open source software so that I knew it would be not only free, but the code would be peer-reviewed and it wouldn’t have any bugs or malicious elements in it. And, eventually, I found thirty pieces of software that really met my needs.

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