CityBeat Blogs - Organization <![CDATA[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.---

Most days, my focus is on getting creative work done: researching posts, writing them, and working on other directly related tasks. As a result, all of these little pieces of information detritus tend to build up over time into an overwhelming mass that dominates the left hand side of my desk. Once a month or so, I force myself to go through it - and then I’m glad I did, because I seem to always find tons of interesting and useful things in there.

This isn’t a particularly good situation, particularly since in most regards I do a great job of managing my information. I use a mix of the notebook in my pocket, Evernote, and Remember the Milk to manage the vast majority of the information I deal with every day.

Yet the stuff on the left side of my desk keeps piling up.

This is the exact problem that Theo Theobald and Gary Cooper’s Detox Your Desk deals with. If you are involved in a high-information job, how do you handle the accumulation of information on your desk? Let’s dig in and see what they have to say.

Section One: Analysis
Why is your desk cluttered? Theobald and Cooper argue that clutter occurs when a person is attempting to jam too many responsibilities and too much information into the timespace you’ve alloted in your life for the work. The clutter consists mostly of items that you’ve deemed less important than other, more pressing matters - and, over time, those items accumulate. You’ve committed to things that personally you do not view as a high priority.

The solution is you - what do you find important in your work? What things are you regularly viewing as a high priority - and what items are you regularly viewing as a low priority? What aspects of your job bring pleasure to you - and which ones leave you feeling empty?

Eventually, the clutter on your desk can lead you to some real revelations about your job as a whole. There may be whole pieces of your job that you’re simply not able to do well - and you can either accept that and make it a conscious part of your situation or you can attempt to change it (or have it changed) by meeting with your supervisor about it.

For example, I often find that I spend a lot of time researching articles that I have a difficult time humanizing. I’ll wind up tossing a pile of well-annotated photocopied pages onto my pile, sigh as I realize that I couldn’t find a workable article in there, then move on. Eventually, I’ll either use it as an offhand mention in a completely different article or I’ll eventually toss it. Much of my clutter is a call to focus more carefully on what’s actually worth writing about before diving too deep into the research and thought process.

Section Two: Method
Interestingly, one of the primary methods that Theobald and Cooper prescribe for detoxing your desk is to utilize some basic time management tactics. They run through some of the more effective tactics of time management - keeping a to-do list, maximizing your “focus” by staying with one task for a maximum of one hour then taking a break, delegate as much as possible, and so on.

Theobald and Cooper argue that utilizing good time management tactics will automatically help de-clutter your desk, since many of the items that make up the clutter will never reach your desk - or will only reach it for a short time. In the end, though, this isn’t so much a solution as it is an effective way to keep the problem from getting worse.

Another useful tactic: focus on the things you’ve done, not the things you’ve left undone. Even if you only make a little progress in reducing your clutter, view it as a positive, not as a failure (because you didn’t completely de-clutter).

Section Three: The Detox Program
The meat of the book (in terms of getting your desk clean) comes in the final section, which outlines a two week long program for eliminating the clutter on your desk. I found this program rather clever and tried it myself with quite a bit of success (though not perfection).

The main idea is pretty simple. Clear everything off of your desk, put it in a box, and start living out of that box. Eventually, you’ll find that you’re actually just using a small portion of the items in that box - the rest is largely not useful to you on a daily basis. The items that are useful to you stay on your desk - the rest should go elsewhere and should be dealt with in a rational pattern. The only actual work that should be on your desk should be works in progress - if it’s a pending task, that material should be somewhere else (in a folder, perhaps).

This system largely led me to start filing all that clutter into an office filing system that is currently in that same box I started with. A few folders for ideas, a folder for receipts - it’s actually much easier than tossing it into the pile and then stressing out over that pile all the time.

Is Detox Your Desk Worth Reading?
If you’ve got a desk filled with “stuff” and it makes you sick to your stomach when you think about it, Detox Your Desk will be a home run read for you. It certainly was for me - reading it and giving the ideas a shot helped me turn my desk from a chaotic mess into something clean and simple with plenty of room to take on a task.

If you don’t have that problem - or don’t understand why it is a problem - Detox Your Desk will likely be a waste of time for you to read. Of course, if you’re in that group, you’ve likely skipped this review anyway.

I found it valuable. If you’re in a “messy desk” situation like me, you might find it valuable, too.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at

<![CDATA[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. ---

On January 8, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a clarification of the law (emphasis added):

The new law requires that domestic manufacturers and importers certify that children’s products made after February 10 meet all the new safety standards and the lead ban. Sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards.

The new safety law does not require resellers to test children’s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell children’s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties.

What does this mean?

Used children’s clothing will still be available at Goodwill and other places. These stores can continue to sell the clothing even without lead and phthalate testing. This would also apply to people who resell used children’s clothes on eBay and so on.

However, items that do not meet the new standards for lead and phthalate content are still banned. Even though you can re-sell used children’s items without testing, that does not mean that you can legally sell items with too much lead and phthalate content. If you’re selling them, you may be fined.

What’s the solution? Simply avoid reselling items that may have high lead or phthalate content. Most clothes should be fine, but you may want to be careful about reselling toys. The CPSC offers a bit of guidance in that press release:

While CPSC expects every company to comply fully with the new laws resellers should pay special attention to certain product categories. Among these are recalled children’s products, particularly cribs and play yards; children’s products that may contain lead, such as children’s jewelry and painted wooden or metal toys; flimsily made toys that are easily breakable into small parts; toys that lack the required age warnings; and dolls and stuffed toys that have buttons, eyes, noses or other small parts that are not securely fastened and could present a choking hazard for young children.

Your best tool, if you’re considering reselling such items, is the internet. If you’re suspicious that an item you are considering reselling may have high lead or phthalate content, do an internet search and see whether your suspicion is true. If I were considering reselling children’s items, I would probably just avoid the categories mentioned by the CPSC above.

So, what did I learn from all of this? My biggest lesson was that there are sensible people in charge of consumer issues. This was really the most sensible solution to the problem - it protects kids without driving resellers out of business. The CPSA was on the ball here in clarifying the rules.

Another lesson was that awareness helps. This issue affects a lot of people - virtually all parents, as well as anyone working for a clothing resale organization, were affected by the basic interpretation of that ruling. I was one of many blogs that chose to talk about the issue - many newspapers and trade groups also spoke out loudly on the topic. Awareness attracts attention, and attention gets things done.

Normally, I won’t delve into specific consumer issues like this one, but I felt that it was a good example - from beginning to end - of how consumer laws affect everyone (sometimes in surprising ways) and how speaking out about things can help bring about a better solution.

At the very least, now I can resell my kids’ outgrown clothes without worrying a bit about the CPSIA.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at ]]>
<![CDATA[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. ---

Why do this? The point is to see how far away the American dream really is for a person with limited resources - no money, no assets, no contacts, no resume. Can that situation be the starting point for financial success? Let’s see if Adam was able to pull it off.

1 - Welcome to Crisis Ministries
Upon Adam’s arrival in Charleston, with only $25, a sleeping bag, a duffel bag, and the clothes on his back to his name, he makes his way to a homeless shelter in a rough part of town - the aforementioned Crisis Ministries. The place looked neat enough from the outside, but was squalid inside - dirty floors, unclean showers, bathrooms that appeared to have never been cleaned. Even worse, the homeless shelter is surrounded by drug use and other temptations, and unscrupulous employers are constantly getting workers from the shelter and employing them in very difficult, low-opportunity jobs. In other words, virtually every easy opportunity at the bottom rung is fraught with challenges.

2 - EasyLabor
Adam’s first full day in town was spent working for one of the employment agencies that recruited homeless people. Unsurprisingly, he worked for less than minimum wage that day, but it did earn him enough to buy some clean clothes and a bit of extra food (for lunches) at the Family Dollar. The intriguing part of the tale comes later when Adam converses with the other people living at the shelter and they swap background stories - almost all of them are variants on the same story. Several little pieces of bad luck - any one or two of which could have easily been dealt with - added up to a fall to this lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

3 - Another Day, Another Dollar
Three real lessons stuck out from this chapter that can really apply to anyone in a low wage situation. First, never turn away an opportunity for help. If you’re in a situation where you have little or no income, contact social services and see what’s out there for you. The programs are there for you - take advantage of them, or else the resources simply go to waste. Second, utilize your library for as much as possible. When Adam stopped by the library to use the free internet access, he found that a lot of the homeless people from the shelter - at least the ones with a degree of self-motivation - were already there, using the ‘net for job searches and other things. Finally, connect with people in your situation, because they likely have at least a strategy or two that you can use to help your situation. Adam learned quite a bit simply from listening and connecting with others at the homeless shelter.

4 - Big Babies
Right here is where I fell in love with this book, because Adam really begins to use frugality to his advantage here. From delayed gratification - passing up a tempting meal that would have cost him $5 and waiting instead for a lesser but free meal at the shelter - to simply pinching pennies by washing his clothes in the free shower and hanging them out to dry instead of dumping coins in the washing machine, Adam saves dollars time and time again, and with little income (earning only $14 after taxes and “fees” for a day’s work, for example), it makes a huge difference. Another lesson - don’t look down upon people. Adam and his temp-job compatriots were given the bum’s rush several times - and outright lied to - by various employers for no good reason. From their perspective, resentment (and likely some anti-social behavior) actually makes some degree of sense - and that can cost you.

5 - Sundays with George
Don’t look down upon any job that can earn you a solid wage. I often hear stories about how Americans simply won’t do certain jobs and thus immigrants tend to take them. That is a huge mistake, especially if you can earn good money doing it - and good money means you take home more per hour than you would doing other things. For example, Adam literally spends two hours shoveling dog feces for $10 in cash an hour. That’s far, far more than minimum wage, but it’s a humiliating and exhausting job - but it’s a worthwhile trade if you’re really committed to getting ahead. Another key lesson - join a church. Most churches will go a long way to help out a member who is truly in need.

6 - Hustle Time
Another key lesson: do whatever you can to earn a few extra bucks. In Adam’s case, he became a cigarette reseller. He didn’t smoke, but he invested some of his cash in a carton of cigarettes, kept a pack in his pocket, and sold them for a quarter a pop. That earned him $5 a pack - $50 a carton - and that made for a very tidy little profit for him. Find whatever you can - that little edge, particularly one done with little effort, can make a big difference.

7 - Job Hunting 101 with Professor Phil Coleman
If you read one bit about this book, let it be this one. One particular anecdote from this chapter inspired me. One of the people at the homeless shelter that Adam was staying at had lived there for almost a year, doing odd jobs and seemingly keeping his nose clean, but not seeming to really go anywhere with his life. One evening, he suddenly revealed his plan to his caseworker by pulling out his wallet and showing her thousands of dollars in cash. He had been saving every dime he could while living at the shelter and intended to use that cash to put a down payment on a duplex across town, living in one half and renting out the other half. The man was thinking ahead and using what little resources he had in hand to build something grand for himself. That earns my respect, indeed.

8 - Put Up or Shut Up
If you want a job, sell yourself. Don’t submit a tired old resume. Don’t go into a job interview with a bunch of “yes” and “no” answers. Sell yourself. It doesn’t matter what job you’re applying for - a programming job or (as is the case with Adam) a moving job. Go in there and tell the boss exactly why you’re the person for the job. Doing so can do nothing but help you - at the very least, you’ll stand out from the crowd of applicants.

9 - “First and Last Day”
The biggest difference between people who get ahead and people who stick in the same rut is the motivation to make that change. When you get up in the morning, do you bemoan the fact that you have to head off to a job, or do you feel happy because of the opportunity that you’ve got and intend to work hard to get ahead? That simple question is often the one that separates the wheat from the chaff.

10 - Adventures in Moving
The primary lesson here is playing the game with the hand you’re dealt. If you spend all your time complaining and griping about the situation you’re handed, you’re going to simply miss out on tons of chances to succeed. For example, one night Adam failed to get back to the shelter on time. He could have spent much of the night complaining about it - instead, he immediately found a blanket and then located an isolated place to sleep outside for the night, ensuring that he got plenty of rest so he could still be productive at work the next day.

11 - Movin’ on Up
Persistence is another key to success in the workplace. You might be forced to work with a person you don’t like - but if you keep your focus on the task at hand and don’t let those others grind you down, eventually things will change. The problem comes when you let those other negative factors make you negative - and then you become part of the problem. Even through a broken toe and an awful partner at his moving job, Adam kept working and rolling - and eventually, he wound up with a much better partner, earning more money and getting better moving jobs while the troublemaker found his way out of the company.

12 - Workers’ Consternation
Here, the valuable lesson is actually for managers and business owners, particularly those who employ a staff of low-wage workers: treat the employees like people. Be there for them when they need you. Eat lunch with them. Know things about their lives. Compliment them when they do well, and stand up for your employees even at times when it might cost the business some money. Do those things and you’ll earn far more money than you will by cutting every corner and fighting for every penny. Everyone values being respected.

13 - Winter with Bubble Gum
Eventually, Adam found himself in a common position for people beginning to stretch out on their own: he sought a roommate. Through his social connections that he’d built over the first half-year of his experience, he found someone interested in getting an apartment that was also fine with getting a very low-end place that would be cheap - and that they could focus on fixing up. This saved them a lot of money in two ways - cheap rent, plus free time eaten up with home repair tasks.

14 - Culture Shocked
Largely, this chapter discusses socializing without a budget, and that mostly revolves around simply searching around for compatible people, which you can find in many places if you’re willing to look for them. Adam hangs out with a lot of co-workers and through them meets a cadre of interesting people.

15 - Fighting for Respect
On the surface, this chapter retells a fist-fight that Adam gets involved with, but the true nature of the story is that Adam is actually developing a place in the world, with strong relationships with other people, a sound financial base, and a lot of promise for the future.

16 - One Last Move
The book largely winds up here, with Adam leaving town to take care of an ailing parent, having succeeded on his quest. His concluding remarks, spread out here and through an epilogue, largely focus on the fact that no matter what life throws at you, you can take ahold of it and make something better out of it.

Some Thoughts on Scratch Beginnings
Here are three things I think I think about Scratch Beginnings.

Adam does have a few advantages here. Although he starts off with just $25, his clothes, and a blank resume, he has much more than that - a social personality, a strong work ethic, and good health. Not everyone has those elements, but I think this book makes a profound argument that those elements can easily be used to pull yourself out of a bad situation.

Frugality underlies everything. None of this would have worked if Adam hadn’t been trying every frugal tactic he could think of, particularly early on. His success in saving $5,000 didn’t just come because he was earning a solid wage at the moving company - it came because he made a genuine effort to save money and cut corners where he reasonably could, and he wasn’t tempted to spend the difference, either.

If nothing else, the book is an excellent yarn. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and was sad to see it end. Shepard is a strong writer with a good sense of making even the most mundane things seem interesting.

Is Scratch Beginnings Worth Reading?
Scratch Beginnings is a thoroughly entertaining (and somewhat enlightening) book about the realities of living at the low end of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s substantially more appealing and relevant than Barbara Ehrenreich’s similar Nickel and Dimed, which I disliked. It’s also readable and enjoyable enough that I had difficulty putting it down when I began reading it, consuming it almost in one straight shot.

Will you come away from the book with some great insights into frugality and how to save money? Probably not. Will it provide some enjoyable reading along with some food for thought about what it really takes to succeed in America? Undoubtedly, yes. And because of that, I thoroughly recommend this book - it was enjoyable and thought-provoking from beginning to end.

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

<![CDATA[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. ---

Practicing constantly Gladwell estimates that, in order to become world class at something, one needs to invest 10,000 hours of practice. That amounts to two hours of practice a day for roughly fifteen years - a pretty tall order, indeed.

Listening and interpersonal communication Being able to pay attention to what others have to say - actually listening and incorporating their statements into your own thoughts - is another big key, as is the ability to communicate with others in a respectful fashion. Doing both of these will help you to naturally build a social network around yourself, which is a big part of the puzzle.

Pushing yourself creatively The more you use creativity in your daily life, the more likely you are to succeed. Putting effort into coming up with unusual or unorthodox solutions almost always pays dividends, even if the end result turns out not to be the best solution.

Adopting a culture of learning and growth The personal aspects of your life - what you do with your spare time, who you associate with - should focus heavily on promoting learning and growth. If you find that you spend much of your spare time idling away the hours, or if your friends engage in activities that don’t help you to grow, you’re going to fall short.

So, how can one take these elements together and use them to improve our career standing? I’d argue that the best way to do all of these things is to find an intellectually stimulating hobby, preferably one that intersects with your professional life in some useful way. Here are some examples of hobbies that pull in all of these elements and can also interact well with your chosen profession.

Attending lectures If you live near a university or live in a large city, there’s usually an abundance of lectures open to the public on all sorts of topics. Attend these and pay careful attention, trying to understand what the speaker is saying. Try to draw your own conclusions, and follow up on your own with additional reading. Participate in the questions and answers. Keep your eyes open for regular attendees and introduce yourself to them in an attempt to build friendships.

Joining a book club A book club not only encourages you to use your spare time to read, but during the meetings, it also gives you an opportunity to push your understanding of what you read, come up with creative explanations and ideas, and build relationships with people doing the same things.

Programming computers I have several friends who spend quite a few spare hours each week involved in open source software projects. Not only does this force them to address programming problems in a different situation than their professional lives, it also pushes their creativity and forces them to communicate complex ideas. Virtually all of them have improved in some fashion because of their involvement.

Learning a musical instrument Playing music requires creativity, focus, and a lot of practice, plus it provides many social opportunities when you’ve mastered it. Try selecting an instrument that’s convenient to play publicly, like a guitar.

Volunteering for leadership Leadership positions in volunteer groups force you to communicate with others, listen to what they have to say, and be creative with solutions to the problems presented to you. Many volunteer groups can fill your hours quite easily, giving you plenty of practice as well.

Mastering a simple task If all else fails, focus on mastering one simple task with your spare time. I have a close friend who devoted many, many hours to mastering the Rubik’s Cube. To some of you, this may seem like a waste of time, but he’s gotten a ton of usefulness out of it. Not only did it teach him how to focus his mind on a complex problem before him, he’s also earned money from putting information online about Rubik’s Cube solving as well as using his ability to quickly solve a cube as an icebreaker and a nifty party trick, enabling him to build relationships.

What’s the take-home message here? Choosing the right hobby can synergize very well with your career choices and point you right down the path to great success. You have a choice to make: do I want to spend my spare time idling, or do I want to spend it doing something fun that, at the same time, teaches me valuable lessons I can utilize in every aspect of my life? The choice is up to you.

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

<![CDATA[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 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 If you have a question that you would like answered, ask in the commments on his blog.

<![CDATA[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

<![CDATA[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.
Whenever I start trying to juggle multiple things - like writing while on the phone with someone or checking other websites while doing research - I cease to do either one very well. I might get the general idea of either activity (I get through a phone call without deep conversation, plus I get a half-baked article written), but I don’t do either one with any degree of excellence. Even more important, not much time is saved, either - I wind up spending roughly the same amount of time if I concentrate on the phone call, then turn off my phone and concentrate on the article - but both wind up with greater quality if I do them one at a time.

Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking, noticed the same thing in his own life and sought to investigate it more deeply. Why do people multitask? Why does it create an illusion of productivity? What’s a better way of doing things? Let’s dig in and see what he has to say.

A Walk Through The Myth of Multitasking
The Myth of Multitasking uses a similar concept as The Wealthy Barber - it makes a detailed, fact-based case while telling a story. In this case, the story revolves around Phil, an individual who attempts to address productivity issues in a company.

Rather than just relating this story in minute detail, I thought it’d be worthwhile to point out several of the biggest ideas hidden within the story, ones applicable to how both you and I work.

Switch time Early on, Phil talks about the idea of “switch time” - the time it takes for a person to mentally switch from one task to another, picking up threads and getting one’s mind in gear. Some switches can be done very quickly, but others may take a few minutes.

So let’s look back at my own example of trying to write an article while talking on the phone. In that case, I’m not really doing two things at once - I’m switching back and forth between those two tasks with a tiny slice of time lost with each switch - say, two seconds. Let’s say over the course of a ten minute phone call, I switch my attention away from the article to the phone call ten times and back to the article ten times. This means, assuming the time is switched equally, I have spent four minutes and forty seconds of the phone call actually paying attention, four minutes and forty seconds trying to write the article (a sentence at a time, of course, because I keep getting interrupted), and forty seconds doing nothing but mentally switching between tasks.

Now, out of a ten minute call, if I’ve only paid attention for four minutes and forty seconds of the call, I’ve actually wasted the majority of the call. I’ve likely missed a ton of nuance and specific points along the way. Similarly, I’ve only gained four minutes and forty seconds’ worth of very stilted writing, most of which I’ll have to polish later on to make it useful.

So what am I left with at the end of ten minutes? A phone call that didn’t go that well at all (because I was obviously distracted and not paying full attention) and four minutes’ worth of half-baked writing that I’ll probably have to re-do.

Instead, I could have paid full attention to the phone call, listening attentively, asking questions, and taking important notes, then turned off my phone and wrote with full attention. In the end, the time investment would be roughly the same - I wouldn’t have to re-do that writing, after all - but the quality level would be much, much higher.

Human interactions People are very, very good at telling when you aren’t giving them full attention. If you’re on a phone call and trying to send emails while talking, it’s usually fairly obvious to the person on the other end that you’re distracted and not paying attention. How? That “switch time” comes back to haunt you.

Let’s say you’re concentrating on an email and someone in the phone call asks a question of you. You notice this and switch to the phone call. It takes a second or two for you to replay what was said, then another second or two to develop an intelligent response. This creates an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, one that’s noticed by everyone involved. It slows everyone else down and creates a negative impression of you as someone who doesn’t really care enough to be involved.

On the other hand, if you’re paying careful attention and formulating your own ideas and thoughts about the conversation as it goes along, when a question is addressed to you, you’re likely able to handle it immediately, looking quite sharp to the crowd.

In meetings, do you ever notice how some people seem to always have a good, alert answer, while others seem to hem and haw before answering? Usually, the only difference between the two is whether or not they’re paying attention and not multitasking. Which one of the two do you think comes off better to the others in the room?

Availability So how can you prevent interruptions? Crenshaw’s solution to this harkens straight back to my college days: make yourself available at certain times and not others.

Here’s how the idea works. Your daily schedule should have some regular times when you’re not available to be interrupted and some regular times when you are. Then divide up your tasks between these two times in a sensible fashion. Keep the longer, thought-intensive tasks for the times when you can’t be interrupted, then save the more interruptible tasks (correspondence, etc.) for the times when you can be interrupted.

During those interruptible times, give the interruptor your full attention. Focus entirely on the meeting at hand and focus on giving useful input to the questions asked of you. When you’re not meeting but still in “interrupt” mode, focus on those little tasks that need doing, like quick emails to people, replacing office supplies, and so on.

Not only that, make this policy clear to those who would interrupt you. That way, they know when they can talk to you and get your full attention and also know when you’re not available, too. They’ll understand - they often need that time to focus.

One place where several friends of mine used to work had two hours of “collaboration time” each day where everyone was available to be interrupted. There was usually an hour of this mid-morning and an hour right after lunch. Other than that, you were almost forbidden from interrupting others. All meetings had to be scheduled during “collaboration time” and all quick stop-ins had to be done then, too. It seemed to work very well for them, indeed.

Time-switching on your family Think about this: how often have you sat around thinking about work when you’re spending time with your family? Then, have you ever felt like you’re never really escaping work?

Those two things are often tightly connected. Parents often feel like they’re spending time with their family, but in truth they’re actually working - at least mentally. They’re reading trade magazines, they’re thinking about important tasks at work, or they’re actually sitting there with their laptop open doing work.

I know. I was there not all that long ago. I would spend my evenings doing these very things, trying to keep The Simple Dollar running in the spare time on the edges of my job. At the same time, I’d convince myself that I was spending time with my family, when in truth I was splitting time - and losing a lot of time in the process of switching tasks.

What worked much better was to set aside a block of time for family, then a block of time for work. Situating that block of time for the period after the kids were in bed actually made me more productive than before, because I could then sit in a quiet place and focus on nothing but work tasks.

A “family block” of time gives your family the focused attention they deserve. Don’t let work interrupt that block, because you’ll lose more than you’ll ever gain.

Some Thoughts on The Myth of Multitasking
Here are three things I think I think about The Myth of Multitasking.

Giving productivity advice in the form of a story worked fairly well here. Almost always, it’s somewhat stilted - you’re trying to give real information within the constraints of a fictional story. However, it works well here - roughly as well as it worked in The Wealthy Barber.

The overall message of the book is pretty simple. Multitasking enables you to perhaps do more things, but it certainly doesn’t allow you to do more things well. It just allows you to cram more mediocrity into a certain timeframe.

My favorite point was the idea of having “available” times and “unavailable” times. It’s okay to not always be available to handle those little things. When you make the choice to always be available, you make the choice to not be able to complete big tasks with a high level of quality.

Is The Myth of Multitasking Worth Reading?
The Myth of Multitasking was an enjoyable read that I got through in one sitting, and it carries with it a vital message: multitasking doesn’t really help you get stuff done in a quality way. It takes a lot of different angles on that basic idea, but in the end, that’s the real point that’s hammered home.

So, is that worth your time? The writing style makes The Myth of Multitasking more approachable than most productivity books - if you find yourself zoning out when reading a really meaty book on this topic like Getting Things Done, you might find this one much more worthwhile.

For me, though, I thrive on complex books, and The Myth of Multitasking felt like too many words to express too few ideas. While I can see how the book could be perfect for some (particularly those who find productivity books boring), the content here would have been two or three pages in Getting Things Done, and I’d rather read the compressed version.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at

<![CDATA[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.


Eventually, though, I switched to using a Mac. And, just as with my PC, I wanted to find a lot of open source software to meet my basic computing needs. I didn’t want to shell out the big bucks for Office or other such expensive pieces of software - I’d already spent enough. So I went hunting.

What follows is a list of twenty five pieces of software that are the cream of the crop of open source software for Macs. Not only is every piece of it free, many of them directly replace expensive software packages.

firefox1. Firefox
Replaces Internet Explorer and Safari
Safari is a very solid web browser out of the box, but it’s not nearly as extensible or useful as Firefox. With add-ons like Book Burro, FareFirst, and Package Mapping, plus the speed and reliability I’ve come to expect, Firefox is the only web browser for me.

2. Quicksilver
Unique but useful (productivity)
Quicksilver lets you set almost anything you can imagine in Mac OS as a keyboard shortcut. This allows me to do things like start iTunes and have it auto-play a specific podcast with a specific keyboard shortcut (I have one that auto-plays This American Life, for example). It’s a bit complicated at first, but once you get used to it, it makes you feel massively productive and it becomes almost an essential part of the OS.

3. Thunderbird
Replaces Mail
For most purposes, the default Mac OS Mail does the trick, but I find Thunderbird essential because it allows me features like auto-replying to certain kinds of messages and far better IMAP support, and it’s faster, too. Even better - it works identically both on my PC and on my Mac.

4. Sunbird
Replaces iCal
I like iCal, but Mozilla Sunbird does one thing that iCal doesn’t - two-way syncing with Google Calendar. When I’m traveling, I’ll use Google Calendar at any terminal I’m at to print out tomorrow’s schedule, make little changes, and so on. When I get home, it’s just a click of a button and it all syncs up with Sunbird. That’s an amazing feature for me and it makes Sunbird far superior to iCal.

5. AbiWord
Replaces Microsoft Word
This is, by far, the best open source word processor for Macs. It functionally replaces Microsoft Word for almost every purpose I’ve come across and has a fast and slick interface to boot. This is the word processing program I used to write my book with, in fact.

OpenOffice.org6. OpenOffice
Replaces Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint
Need to make spreadsheets or presentations on your Mac? OpenOffice provides the tools you need for that (as well as word processing, but I prefer AbiWord for that). I often use OpenOffice Spreadsheet for the number calculations you see on The Simple Dollar, as well as using it for tracking my net worth (as in this tutorial I wrote).

7. Seashore
Replaces (for most uses) Adobe Photoshop
This is a fairly simple image editor that takes care of most of the basic uses of Photoshop and is simple enough for most users to pick up. This is a great solution for those who want to do simple image manipulation but don’t want to shell out the big bucks for Photoshop.

8. Scribus
Replaces Adobe Pagemaker (desktop publishing)
I’m actually elbow-deep in Scribus right now as I work on a special side project. It’s a very powerful desktop publishing program, giving you tons of freedom to lay out pages however you like. Another use: I’m thinking about making a family newsletter to ship out in the Christmas cards this year.

9. Adium
Replaces iChat
iChat is pretty slick, allowing me to chat in AIM and GTalk at the same time, but what about all of the other chatting protocols out there. Adium allows you to be on YahooIM, Windows Messenger, AIM, ICQ, and several other messaging services at the same time with the same program.

10. OneButton FTP
Replaces “command line” FTP
On occasion, I need to FTP some files from one place to another (usually from one computer to another within our home network, when I’m too lazy to use a memory stick). OneButton FTP does the job in the simplest and easiest way possible - much easier than the default “command line” FTP.

11. Audacity
Replaces/supplements GarageBand
Need to make audio recordings of your own? All you need is a microphone of some sort and Audacity - and you can create podcasts, record music, or pretty much anything else you can imagine. I’ve actually considered using it to read aloud some bedtime stories for my kids in advance of any traveling I might do.

12. Cashbox
Replaces Quicken
This is a very nice personal finance data manager for Mac OS. It doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles of Quicken, but it provides a strong feature set and a huge number of different views of your personal finance state. If you’re a Quicken fan but don’t want to drop the cash for a Mac version, look into this one.

13. Vidalia
Unique but useful (privacy)
Many people are concerned about online privacy and don’t want their IP address shared with web sites that they visit or file servers that they access. Vidalia easily allows you to use proxy servers for your accessing needs, enabling you to disguise your computer on the internet.

14. Books
Unique but useful (book cataloguing)
This one’s just for fun, but I’ve found it very useful. It allows you to catalogue all of your books, create reports, and so forth. I’ve been using it heavily in conjunction with PaperBackSwap to help me as I read through a pretty big pile of classic literature.

15. Bean
Replaces TextEdit
I use this software for the editing of virtually every post that appears on The Simple Dollar. It’s a slick little editor with features like automatic word counting that really help when you’re trying to keep some semblance of control on the length of your articles.

16. GanttProject
Replaces Microsoft Project
This is an excellent tool if you’re involved in the management of large projects with many staff members, particularly if budgeting is tight (as Project can be expensive). One of my closest friends uses this for mission-critical projects in the workplace.

17. Nvu/BlueGriffon
Replaces Dreamweaver (HTML editing)
I prefer coding my HTML by hand, but many people prefer the aid of a tool to help them with layout, and that’s what these provide. Nvu is a bit outdated but is still very useful - the creator has moved on to a new project, called BlueGriffon, which should be available soon.

18. Blender
Unique but useful (3D graphics creation)
Blender is a magnificent tool if you like tinkering with 3-D graphics creation. It’s perhaps overkill for most people, but if you’re involved in graphic design at all, using and knowing Blender can be invaluable.

19. Colloquy
Unique but useful (IRC)
If you chat on IRC, Colloquy is essential software. For the uninitiated, IRC is a very large network of chatrooms on various specific topics, often developing their own culture. Colloquy is a wonderful solution for IRC chatters on Macs.

20. FreeMind
Unique but useful (brainstorming)
Whenever I’m struggling to organize my thoughts and ideas, I open up FreeMind. Basically, it’s a tool that lets you toss out your thoughts in an unorganized structure, then build connections between them however you like. I often use it for posts where I have a collection of thoughts and research notes, but I haven’t really decided how to order them or tie them all together. It’s brilliant in any brainstorming setting.

21. Celestia
Unique but useful (planetarium)
If you’re a space buff (like I am), Celestia is incredible software. It’s a great way to create star charts, help you identify good nights for viewing constellations and other stellar objects, and simply stumble around different views of the sky. I simply love looking at the night sky, and Celestia is a wonderful free companion for this hobby.

22. Transmission
Unique but useful (file sharing)
Many people like to upload and swap their own files with other users, such as live recordings of concerts, recordings of their own performances, free application software, and so on. BitTorrent is one of the most popular protocols for doing this, and Transmission is easily the best of the open source Mac clients for swapping them.

23. MacLibre
Supplements Software Update
Many of these software packages are updated fairly regularly by their authors. MacLibre serves as something of a “Software Update” tool for these things, fetching updates for you and helping you to easily install them with just a click or two. It’s a great way of keeping up to date on software updates for open software on a Mac.

24. Aleph One
Like games like Quake and Half-Life? Aleph One is an excellent open source game in this vein, available for the Mac. The graphics are a bit on the simple side, but online play is quite slick and one can’t argue with the cost.

25. Battle for Wesnoth
The final choice on this list is a turn-based strategy game with a fantasy theme. Battle for Wesnoth presents you with a wide array of scenarios that require you to take turns moving pieces around the landscape, thinking about your moves, and engaging in skirmishes. This one ate up a lot of my hours a few years ago!