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Breaking Through the “Store Brand Stigma”

Our switch to buying almost everything we could in store brand form wasn’t an immediate one, nor was it a particularly easy one.

The reason for making the switch was really clear — almost all store brand products are significantly cheaper than the name brand item that they’re nearly identical to — but actually making that switch wasn’t always easy, and the “store brand stigma” was a big part of that reason.

What do I mean by the “store brand stigma?” In short, it’s the sense that a store brand product is inherently worse in quality than the equivalent name brand product, even if they are literally identical in terms of the contents of the package.

When you’re looking at two boxes of, say, instant rice, and one of them is store brand and the other one is Minute Rice, and you know that the contents are almost exactly the same based on the nutrition facts and ingredients but the store brand box is cheaper, yet you still feel that the name brand item is better, you’re feeling that store brand stigma.

When you look at an item in your home (or someone else’s home), you notice it’s a store brand item, and you inherently doubt that it’s as good as the name brand version, you’re feeling that store brand stigma.

It’s a real feeling, but it’s a foolish feeling.

The “store brand stigma” is the result of a lot of clever marketing.

If you’re observant, you’ll probably notice that there’s no real marketing out there indicating that store brand products are inherently bad. There’s no real marketing out there indicating that they’re inherently good, either, because there’s basically no real marketing for store brand products.

On the other hand, name brand products are carefully marketed to make you think that they’re good. Almost every name brand item you can think of has had extensive marketing dollars and careful plans utilized to make you think positively about that product and the brand that makes it. You see ads. You see product placements in television shows. You see news reports about the latest products. You see brighter and more attractive packaging in the store (the product of a well paid and very skilled graphic design team). In short, tons of effort is put into name brands to make you think that they’re good.

So, when you look at a name brand item and a store brand item, you usually feel at least a little bit of the “good” feeling from that name brand product. If nothing else, the packaging is usually more sophisticated and it’s likely that you’ve at least heard of the brand in some non-negative way. That adds up to a sense that the name brand is somehow good.

The store brand doesn’t have the colorful packaging or the name brand recognition going for it. Thus, when you hold the name brand and the store brand side by side, the store brand isn’t bad, it just gives a sense of being not as good as the name brand. There hasn’t been effort put into marketing the store brand to you, so it doesn’t have that added sense of “good” that the name brand has.

Now, repeat that a bunch of times. Repeat that with product after product after product. You never feel that the store brand is bad, per se, but you constantly feel less about it than you do about the name brand.

Over time, the result of that is that you gain a sense that the store brand is somehow inferior, even though there’s nothing about the actual store brand product that is actually inferior.

In fact, much of the time, store brands are virtually identical to the name brands and are sometimes produced identically, just with different outer packaging. There are many store brands that are produced at the exact same facilities with the exact same recipe as a name brand version, and even when that’s not the case, the store brand is made to be extremely similar to a name brand product with only minor changes.

Yet, knowing all that, knowing that many store brands are identical to name brands, many others are functionally identical, and many others are perfectly functional, and that store brands are less expensive, we still see store shelves jam packed with name brands. The innate preference for name brands over store brands persists, quite strongly, even though it costs customers money.

So, how do you break through that stigma?

Here’s how to break free.

The answer is simple: intentionally buy lots of store brands. Do it purposefully. Go to the store and for every product you have on your list, intentionally buy the store brand version instead of the name brand version. Take those products home and use them.

Here’s what will happen, and I’m speaking from experience here: as you start using the store brand products, and you see that package and that store brand logo over and over again, and the product just works for your needs, you begin to feel better about that store brand. You actually see all of these store brand products working, and thus you begin to build up a positive sense about the store brand because of the success you’re witnessing. The more store brands you buy, the more effective this is.

Now, you may find that a specific store brand product doesn’t meet your needs. That’s to be expected. There will be some products that don’t meet your needs and, in those cases, switch back to the name brand for that specific product.

As for all of the other store brand products that meet your needs, stick with them. Not only will you save money over the name brand on every single purchase, but you’ll gradually break that store brand stigma. You’ll no longer feel that store brands are lesser products just because of their packaging and lack of a brand name, and that’s a big financial win for so many of your household and food staples.

When I look at the items I purchase on a typical weekly grocery store visit, a very large portion of the items are store brands. If I’m purchasing 20 store brand items on a typical visit and they’re saving me $0.50 a piece, that’s a savings of $10. If I do that every week, that’s $520 saved over the course of a year. That’s quite a lot of savings.

Furthermore, I no longer feel any sort of negative feeling about store brands; in fact, I think of the store brands at my main grocery store in a very positive light. Simply put, they work. They do what I ask of them quite well. The store brand, to me, means “we get the job done at a great price,” and that’s the kind of value I’m always looking for. I see the store brand label as a sign of very good value for the dollar rather than as a lesser product, and that ends up translating into hundreds of dollars in savings per year.

Good luck with breaking your own store brand stigma!

The post Breaking Through the “Store Brand Stigma” appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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The Cheapest Nevada Renters Insurance Companies 2019

Everything is bigger than life in Vegas, including the cost of living. The entire state of Nevada is more expensive than the U.S. average cost of living, and yet the average rate of Nevada renters insurance ($174) is not much different from the national average of $180 in 2017, making it more affordable than ever to protect your things.

Renters insurance is an essential part of renting any property because it protects you from liability if damage happens. It not only protects your valuables, but it also covers any damages to the property that may occur.

Nevada renters insurance is not required, but it is highly recommended given its extremely low monthly premium and widespread coverage. You can sleep better at night knowing your home is safe and protected.

Best rental insurance companies in Nevada

Nevada is prone to damage from lightning, extreme winds and flooding. Renters insurance not only covers your home and your belongings, but it also covers incidents where a visitor experiences damage to themselves or their belongings. Your Nevada renters insurance company will handle the medical expenses and any property reimbursement.

Insurance policies will vary depending on your needs, and there is a wide variety of coverage that is available to you.

We did the research and found these five companies are the best Nevada renters insurance companies:

  • American Family
  • Country Financial
  • State Farm
  • Travelers

State Farm and Travelers are nationally known as reliable renters insurance companies, but Nevada welcomes some lesser-known names that are setting the bar higher. The best Nevada renters insurance companies are affordable and offer superior customer service.

J.D. Power and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) judge a company by their customer satisfaction, taking into account things like the kinds of policies available, pricing and claims processing. AM Best measures a company’s financial stability, which can significantly affect how well your claim and reimbursements are handled.

Rankings for best renters insurance companies: Nevada

Company J.D.Power AM Best BBB
Travelers 2 out of 5 A+ (Superior) A+
Country Unranked A+ (Superior) A+
State Farm 5 out of 5 A++ (Superior) A+
American Family 5 out of 5 A (Excellent) A

Best for bundle policy options: Country

Country offers fantastic Nevada renters insurance with tiered pricing bundled into two different cheap renters insurance packages, Basic and Premier. It allows higher amounts of liability, offering up to $1 million in coverage. Multi-policy insurance becomes even cheaper.

Best for affordable coverage: American Family

American Family is J.D. Power’s #1 pick for home insurance, surpassing all other renters insurance companies in customer satisfaction, pricing, offerings and billing.

American Family Insurance offers multi-faceted coverage, making it easy to bundle your best Nevada renters insurance policy with life insurance and plans for your car, motorcycle and RV. There’s travel protection and pet insurance. American Family can tend to all of your needs while also providing affordable insurance rates.

Best for customer service: State Farm

State Farm is known for its customer satisfaction rates. It got 5 out of 5 in nearly all areas from the J.D. Power ratings, including for overall satisfaction.

Best for multiple products: Travelers

Travelers is one of the largest providers for auto and home insurance, so this company is a good option if you’d like to work with one company for your all your policies.

Unlike many states, Nevada’s best cheapest insurance companies are among the top-rated in the country. With straight A’s in financial stability and customer reviews, these companies offer the most affordable renters insurance for your home and belongings.

It makes renters insurance more attainable without making a massive dent in the budget.

The average for Nevada cheap renters insurance is $179 per year, but the best cheap renters insurance companies come in below that price.

These are the average annual premiums for Nevada’s best cheap renters insurance companies

  • Country: $116
  • American Family: $131
  • Travelers: $134
  • State Farm: $152

Coverage usually includes $15,000 in personal liability and $30,000 in property liability, but these numbers can increase based upon your needs. To make things more budget-friendly, you can also adjust your coverage to protect your home adequately.

Frequently asked questions

How much renters insurance do I need in Nevada?

Nevada does not require its residents to have car insurance or renters insurance. Landlords are free to make their own rules, however, and many properties require renters insurance before you move in. If your landlord requires a certain amount, start with that required coverage. If you aren’t required to have renters insurance but want it, do a home inventory to decide how much coverage you need to cover your belongings.

What is the best renters insurance company in Nevada?

Which company is the best for you will depend on your budget and needs. Nevada is home to some of the country’s best cheap renters insurance companies. The companies listed here boast high scores in customer satisfaction.

To choose the right policy for you, look at the eligible discounts to see if there is a lower price. You can also look for special add-on coverage that you may need from a specific insurance provider.

What does renters insurance include?

The reason why renters insurance is so important is that it protects your home. Renters insurance will cover your damages to your rental property, your belongings and liability if a guest gets injured at your apartment

Is renters insurance worth the money?

You spend a fortune on your rent and utilities, so why not protect your home too? It is a minor expense when compared to the consequences of no insurance in times of trouble. Most policies will cost you little more than your morning coffee!

The post The Cheapest Nevada Renters Insurance Companies 2019 appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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6 Situations Where a Budget Can Reduce Financial Stress

Some of the best things in life are… expensive.

Milestones like going off to college, buying a house or starting a family can drain your bank account — which can lead to some major financial stress.

Advance planning, however, can combat some of that anxiety. Budgeting can help you prepare for the big — and little — things life throws your way. After all, a budget is just a plan for your money.

Here are six situations where budgeting now can reduce financial stress for you later.

1. Going Away to College

Repeat after me: Student loans are not free money.

It’s easy to use your refund check to fund all the hidden costs of college, like extracurriculars and decorating your dorm. But you’ll be kicking yourself when you’re struggling to pay back those student loans 10 years later.

Take a step toward adulting and make a budget in college that’ll give you a realistic view of whether you can afford that spring break trip or if you would be better off picking up extra shifts at your part-time job. 

2. Moving Into Your First Apartment

Moving into a new place takes a lot of upfront cash. There are application fees, security deposits and first and last months’ rent to fork over before you can get a set of keys — and then you’ve got to pay the movers.

This guide on saving up for your first apartment lays out what you need to consider before moving out on your own. It’ll help you decide what you really can afford.

Pro Tip

Having a roommate can help lower your living expenses, but here’s how you should screen potential roommates before signing a lease together.

3. Buying a House

Buying a house is not something you just do on a whim. It’s an entire process, part of which involves saving up a large sum of money.

Give yourself time to save for a house, setting aside room in your budget to add to your down payment fund each month. And don’t just focus on the money needed to get you in your home. There are a bunch of ongoing homeowner expenses to consider, like maintenance and HOA fees.

4. Having Kids

Oh baby, kids can be expensive. And while it feels awkward putting a price tag on your plans for a family, it’s wise to go into parenthood knowing you have the adequate financial resources.

Our guide to budgeting for a baby runs down the many costs you can expect in the first year — from a crib to child care. 

As your baby grows up, your expenses will change. You’ll need to adjust your budget to keep up. Turn to these tips to help you save on children’s expenses, especially if you’ve got multiple kids.

Pro Tip

Help your children avoid taking on mountains of student loan debt by saving for your kids’ college education.

5. Career Changes

Having a budget can help you through the ebbs and flows of your professional life. 

If you’re dealing with a period of reduced income (like if you lose your job or take time off from the workforce), you’ve got to determine how much money you need to cover the basics. Look to see what unnecessary spending you can cut out of your budget.

Conversely, if you get a raise or a new job with a better salary, budgeting that extra money instead of mindlessly blowing it will set you up for a better financial future.

6. Retirement

No one wants to get to retirement age only to realize they don’t have enough money saved up to sustain them in their golden years.

That’s why it’s crucial to add retirement contributions to your budget now so you’re not worrying about your savings (or lack thereof) when it really matters. Reduce financial stress by getting an early start on retirement planning, so you have more time to let compound interest work to your best advantage.

But if you missed your chance at adding to a 401(k) plan in your 20s, don’t fret. This advice about how to save for retirement at every age will get you closer to saying goodbye to your working days with confidence that your money will last.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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Interview with Rachel Uwa, founder of the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe

The School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe has recently announced its programme of workshops, trips, scholarship and classes (PDF) for 2020. This year, the school will be looking at drones as a means to investigate concepts of borders, history, politics and human experience; Smell as another way to engage in storytelling; Sensual Technologies that delve into embodiment, desire and the senses; Ethics, AI and the potential of data to disrupt larger systems; there’s also a Made In China program taking place in Shenzhen and focusing on the creative exploration of digital fabrication and IoT. And much more.

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The Berlin-based School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe works with renowned artists, hackers, designers and other creators to teach and explore art, technology, design and human connection. Students learn new skills, manipulate new tools but they also get to inquire the political and human dimensions of technology.

I’ve been involved with the school a couple of times and each time i was amazed by the range of seriously interesting people i met there. The teachers but also the thinkers and tinkerers who attended as students. In my experience, the courses always end up taking the form of an energising exchange between people who have different backgrounds and competences. Another aspect that makes the school so appealing is that it is constantly shifting focus depending on the tech issues and tools that feel most urgent and meaningful at the moment.

I’m not paid to write these lines by the way, i’m just genuinely impressed by the School’s ethos and dynamics.

School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe was founded by Rachel Uwa. Rachel is an artist, educator and organiser with a background in audio engineering and VFX compositing. She’s also the editor of the art/tech zine ¡MEOW! I talked with her during the Winter break:

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Hi Rachel! You’re the face and founder of the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe. Does it mean that you’re the one deciding the type of topics and technologies the courses are going to engage with? What guides the themes of the courses and workshops? Is it technology, requests from students, makers and thinkers? Something else?

Humans and society guide the themes of the school more than anything. Each year I look around at the current state of things and ask, Where are we humans at on the whole? Where are we missing the mark and what feels important for us to know now?

I don’t believe in embracing technology because we can but rather in questioning it and its purpose in our lives.

Some years ago I used to wake up and only seconds after reach for my phone. Then our alcoholic neighbour burned down his flat and we didn’t have internet for a year and a half because the fire burned through the cables. Needless to say, I was forced to reevaluate my relationship to this technology.

This is my approach to it, using technology as a tool that helps us to question the world we live in and ourselves.

So I design educational programs to do just that.

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I love the title of the school. Why Make-Believe? What does the concept brings to the spirit and image of the school?

For me, Make-Believe has always been about imagining a world that doesn’t exist and pretending it’s so for reasons of play (fun), experimenting with what could be (future), and simply survival. These are all super important and underrated life skills that as much as possible I try and bring to the fore.

It’s the kind of education I would love to have had— a gentle and metaphorical approach to dealing with ourselves by putting the focus on something much easier to deal with— technology.

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Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the school is that you make it a priority to work with women and persons from under-represented communities. I wish it wasn’t that ground-breaking to operate this way in the 21st century. And yet, things are moving very slowly it seems. But maybe i’m wrong? Do you feel that the whole tech & creativity world is finally waking up to the facts that talents don’t have to be white and male?

I used to work in audio, then visual effects before getting into the code and tech world. At the time, in each of these fields, there were almost no women to speak of. I’ve always been a person who made it a point to start the women in— audio, tech, etc. group to try and change that.

Looking around now, the situation appears much improved. But not everywhere. I hear often from women in Eastern Europe for example that it’s still a struggle to be taken seriously and it is not isolated to that part of the world only.

One of the things I also see is a lack of confidence in under-represented people in tech (understandably so), so helping people build up confidence to even ask for a seat at the table is another priority for me.

Of course, men always receive more attention even still, let’s be honest.

So we tackle each of these aspects and keep up the good fight until it’s better everywhere. In the end, it’s everyones responsibility to improve this situation, to do better. Even white men!

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The school was born in 2014. I actually thought it was created earlier given how much it has accomplished in such a short amount of time. What are the moments, achievements you’re particularly proud of? 

To still be alive, surviving and constantly evolving is right up there on my list of achievements. I see so many organisations shut down operations. Without any institutional support it’s really a tough world out here.

I also feel proud about having run programs and workshops in other countries which I’ve been doing for several years. Thus far we’ve been in Italy, Serbia, Spain, China and Ireland. It’s immersive learning on all fronts— via culture, technology, community, ourselves. I hope to add more countries to the list soon.

The School offers many courses to learn about IoT, VR, data viz, drones, AI, etc. Which sounds very tech-driven but how does the school address a more systemic critique of tech and challenge western-centric notions of progress and innovations?

As I tried to allude to earlier, yes, we run workshops on technology but it’s not to fully embrace it; the first step is always to question it.

How does this technology make our lives easier? How is this technology used against us? In what ways can we use this technology to express who we are and what we care about (because it matters)?

Last year I was part of a think tank where one guy stood up and was like, “I don’t agree with this idea about diversity in the workplace. I don’t see race or gender.” After being annoyed because he was actually referring to my comment about the lack of diversity the day before, I realised he did have a point.

In the workplace people mute who they are and what they care about because that’s the culture. So you can look around at a group of diverse people and not necessarily see any diversity. I believe that self-suppression, which is very much a part of corporate culture, is doing way more harm than good, giving the false impression that diversity brings nothing to the table. I hope slowly this will start to change.

Of course, I address all these kinds of things and more in each of our programs. These are the fundamentals.

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This is going to sound super cheesy but i’ve always admired your maverick and daring attitude. You didn’t chose an easy path. An US citizen alone in Berlin builds up her own school from scratch. Would you do things differently if you had to do it all over again?

Well, first of all, Régine, thank you. You know I feel the same way about you! To answer the question, I think living through painful shit makes you a survivor. Of course, I don’t wish a hard life on anybody. But I do believe if we have lived through something, in childhood or onwards, sometimes we can use the injustice of our world to fuel our courage.

That said, while I don’t have a problem with courage, I do have a problem asking for help. So I’m starting to learn better how to navigate that world of asking for what I need because I finally understand what I need. It can feel so awkward and difficult. If you’re a person who’s received such an email from me, well, now you know, I’m still learning!

And yet communication is one of those all-important skills we need for survival.

I’ve been watching some Tupac and Biggie documentaries lately and from what I can tell, it seems if only they’d had a chance to really talk, the story of their lives could have played out so differently! So I think regardless of how it feels, it’s worth it to keep at it, to keep trying to improve communication until the end.

And on the other hand, what are the advantages of throwing yourself at a project with a lot of audacity and independence but not a lot of financial backing?

Lots of people have ideas but don’t make progress because all they see are the obstacles: I need money, I need a developer, I need fill-in-the-blank. Having an alternative mindset is imperative to a life of making things happen. Would I like funding and financial support? Yes, and if someone reading this would like to give it to me, please get in touch!

But I’ve been running the school for five years, designing over 27+ four-week, full-time programs with hundreds of brilliant students and instructors from over 52 countries and I am a better person for it. So I recommend to anyone, move forward on ideas that are important whatever it takes and allow these experiences to change and guide you.

Have you ever been tempted to set up the school back in the US?

I’ve definitely had ideas about running programs in a few states specific to organisations and people I’d like to work with. But there are so many fascinating people and places in the world that in comparison the US feels kind of limiting. I’m not opposed to it. But it’s not at the forefront of my mind just yet.

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Can you take us through the 2020 programme of the school?

Sure! Well, overall it has to do with this idea that if we want better societies we have to become better people.

So what does it mean to become a better person? I’m suggesting that we start off by becoming the greatest observers of ourselves and our own human needs and experiences, because if we want to know others it starts with knowing ourselves. It’s not the whole story, mind you, but it’s a brave start.

So 2020 classes are all aimed in that direction and are about exploring human experience through play and technology— our senses (Smell, Crafting Food Experiences), our bodies (Sensual Tech), nature (Nature, Generative Art & Machine Learning), our ability to tell intriguing stories and change minds (Transmedia Storytelling), the messages we convey when taking art out of the gallery and into public space (Interactive Berlin), our data and our selves (Ethics, AI and Data) and finally ever-growing in importance, our relationships to other cultures and to machines (Made In China II, Drones, Physical Machines).

My curriculum is my art! Haha. In part, anyway.

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Any other ambitions, projects and wishes for the future of the SoMM&MB?

Always! I’m working on— documentation of the first five years, more online classes, a symposium on designing better societies, more collaborations with humans and institutions I believe in, consultancy in education design, more pancake society events and ¡MEOW! zines, expanding to other countries and holding classes in languages other than English—for a start. And finally securing some funding! After all these years and all this work, I think we deserve it!

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Thanks Rachel!

Early program applications and hardship scholarship applications are currently being accepted. Deadline to apply for either of these is 26 January 2020. Early program applicants will be eligible to receive a 20% reduced fee if they are accepted.

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Don’t Go Into Debt for These 5 Major Life Events

You know those once-in-a-lifetime moments you can’t put a price on?

Hey, I’m as sentimental as the next person, but big life events shouldn’t sink your finances.

So despite the hype, here are five life moments you shouldn’t go into debt for — and ways to avoid spending beyond your means. 

Five Life Events You Should Not Go Into Debt For

You’ll never get this time back again, so don’t worry about the money — said every person who ever gave bad financial advice.

Big moments in your life should be special, but not at the expense of your financial future. Here are five that shouldn’t land you in debt.

1. Your Wedding Day

You’re engaged? Congratulations! 

Plenty of people have dreamed since they were kids about their wedding day, so we’re not going to tell you to ditch the big wedding and elope.

But considering the national average cost of a wedding was just shy of $34,000 according to a 2018 study by The Knot, you could be paying off that special day for years — or decades. 

Pro Tip

Decide with your fiance the top three priorities for your wedding. Establishing what’s worth splurging on will help you create a budget reflective of what you really want your wedding to be like.

Rather than starting your new life as a married couple digging out of debt, why not make your happily ever last long after the reception? 

You can start with a wedding budget. It might not sound romantic, but look at it this way: You can put every dollar you save on the wedding toward the honeymoon — or even a home.

And we have plenty of ways to save money on your wedding — without anyone realizing you cut some corners or skipped a few traditions.

2. A Vacation

Vacations are supposed to help you unwind and relax. 

You know what’s not relaxing? Coming back from a trip to a pile of credit card debt.

If your vacation photos are tinged with regret — “Why did I go to that overpriced hotel brunch every day?” — consider making a plan to save for your trip before you ever leave home.

Pro Tip

One way to save: a sinking fund. Divide the estimated total cost of your vacation by the number of months left until you leave. That’s how much money you need to set aside every month.

We have plenty of ways to keep money in your pocket, from booking the cheapest day to fly to saving money on food when traveling. We even have ways to make money when you travel.

And what could be more relaxing than coming back from vacation with extra money to spend… on the next trip?

3. Your Kid’s College Tuition

As a parent, you probably want to give your kid the best chance to succeed (if not, maybe you should have gotten a cat instead).

The gift of college tuition may be tempting, particularly given the current $1.5 trillion in student loan debt hanging over Americans’ heads. But taking on student loan debt as a parent is definitely not in your best interest.

If you take out a Parent Plus Loan, you’re legally responsible for repayment and cannot transfer the loan to your child.

If you haven’t heard it already, here’s the advice from financial experts: Your kids can take out loans to go to college; you can’t take out loans to retire.

And in the long run, your kids will more than likely get a better deal on student loans than you will as a parent. That’s because compared to federal loans taken out by students, Direct Plus Loans for parents have higher interest rates and are much more restrictive when it comes to repayment and forgiveness options

We have plenty of strategies for your kids to pay off student loans. If you really want to help, you can chip in on the payments until they can cover the costs themselves.

4. The Holidays

Here’s a little secret about Christmas you may or may not know: It comes every year. Shocker, right?

OK, all kidding aside, the holidays can trigger those special treasured memories of family traditions and a tree surrounded by presents.

However, all the parties and presents can really take a toll on your bank account, and spending yourself into debt isn’t what makes the holidays special — or at least it shouldn’t be. 

But we get it. You still want to give the kiddos in your life that unforgettable moment of unwrapping the perfect present. So why not start a new tradition: the four-gift rule. You can still enjoy the joy of seeing your kids’ face light up, but you won’t bust Santa’s budget with lots of items they’ll forget a half hour later.

And don’t set spending limits on only the ho-ho-holidays. Consider cheap dates for Valentine’s Day, DIY Easter treats and birthday freebies

The point is, there’s no reason every holiday should leave you digging out of debt afterward.

5. A New Car

Even though the financial experts might advise it, it may be a bit unrealistic to suggest none of us should go into debt when buying a car.

Unless you have an extra $30,000 or so, (the average price for a mid-size car was $27,968 in October 2019, according to Kelley Blue Book) you probably can’t pay cash for your next vehicle.

But going into debt to buy a brand new car? Not so fast there, motorhead.

It’s not just that new cars are more expensive — they also in general lose 23.5% of their retail value after a year and about 60% in the first five years, according to Edmunds. 

So if you pay $40,000 for a brand new car, it will be worth about $30,600 after the first year — and $16,000 after five years. Ouch.

And if you think the solution is simply to take out a longer car loan, you’re not alone. For new passenger vehicles, the number of new loans between 85 and 96 months increased 38% in the first quarter of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018, according to Experian

By extending loans to seven or eight years, dealers can get you in a car for a lower monthly payment — but you’ll be paying a bundle more in interest.

How much more? Compare:

If you pay $30,000 for a car and take out a 60-month loan at 5%, you’ll pay $3,968 in interest on that amount. But if you take out a 96-month loan at the same rate, you’ll pay $6,461 in interest — almost $2,500 more.

We have plenty of tips for avoiding auto loan debt, but one of the best ways is to avoid the allure of the new car smell and stick to your budget.

The best reward of staying within your means could result in your biggest life event of all: becoming debt free.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

The Complete Guide to Vanguard Index Funds

Index funds are like cheating. And the Vanguard Index Funds are the best around.

You get more while paying less. Your money grows faster than doing it yourself or using professional managers. The fees are also crazy low, so low that you won’t even notice them.

Better performance at a lower price. It’s one of the situations where paying more doesn’t get you a better result.

And Vanguard’s corporate structure is set up so that the fund investors are the owners. That’s you. All fund profits get returned to fund shareholders as lower fees. You never have to worry about getting gouged.

What Is a Vanguard Index Fund?

A Vanguard Index Fund is comprised of hundreds of stocks and/or bonds. The goal isn’t to pick a few “winners” and beat the market. The goal is to get as much diversification as possible in order to match the market.

While a managed fund may individually choose stocks, index funds invest in most of the funds in a specific index (ie., S&P 500, Dow Jones, Nasdaq).

When you purchase shares of an index fund, you’re basically buying into that market as a whole. Having shares in a Vanguard US stock index fund is like having shares in the entire US stock market. You own a little bit of everything instead of owning shares in a single company.

Index funds also tend to have lower taxes since they don’t buy or sell frequently like managed funds. Index funds also cost less than managed funds because there’s less time spent hand-picking stocks and bonds.

How do the index funds work?

When building a stock index fund, Vanguard purchases shares from a ton of different companies. Vanguard’s goal is to match their ownership of a given company to that company’s share of the overall market.

For example, let’s say a Vanguard fund has $100 to invest and that Amazon represents about 10% of the entire stock market. In this case, Vanguard would invest $10 into Amazon and the remaining $90 into other companies. If Amazon’s value grows, Vanguard buys more. If it shrinks, Vanguard buys less.

Then when you buy shares in that index fund, you have a claim to a small percentage of all those investments that Vanguard makes on your behalf. When those companies give dividends, you get your cut. And as the value of the market grows or shrinks, the value of your investment changes with it.

This is how index funds work across all their respective markets: stocks, bonds, real-estate, international stocks and bonds, etc. Vanguard has 80 index exchange-traded funds and more than 60 main index funds from which to choose. Each of them tracks their respective market as closely as possible.

Our Take on Vanguard Index Funds

Vanguard is an excellent option for index funds. They started the index fund revolution and set the standard for the entire industry. Compared to index funds from other firms, Vanguard either has the lowest fees or comes really close.

They do have one major downside: most of their funds require at least a $3,000 deposit to get started.

In the past, the lowest fees from their Admiral Funds didn’t open up until you had $10,000 invested. Vanguard did eliminate this restriction and now offers their lowest fees at the $3,000 minimum. It’s a good example of Vanguard always looking for ways to reduce their fees.

For first time investors, $3,000 is still a steep requirement. Many index funds at other firms don’t have any minimums, you could start with an investment of $10 if you wanted to.

When I was starting, I saved up $3,000 in order to open up my first Vanguard investment fund. That’s one option.

But if the $3,000 minimum is too steep, I’d go with another firm.

The Cost and How to Buy Vanguard Index Fund Shares

Every index fund has an expense ratio, it’s a percentage that the fund charges you every year based on your total investment in that fund.

Most of the Vanguard index funds have an expense ratio in the 0.04% to 0.15% range. As a rough rule, simple index funds like total stock or bond indexes are on the lower end and more complicated markets like precious metals will have higher fees. It wasn’t that long ago that mutual funds would charge 1-2% so these expense ratios are super low.

Vanguard does technically have an annual service fee of $20 per account. There’s two ways to avoid this fee:

  1. Have at least $10,000 in the account
  2. Agree to electronic delivery for all documents

Since electronic documents are almost always easier, most folks can easily get the fee waived. So all you have to worry about is the expense ratio on your funds. Everything else is free. That includes buying and selling Vanguard index funds.

A list of Vanguard’s fees is here.

The Best Vanguard Index Funds

Vanguard has dozens of index fund options to choose from.

If I had to pick only four index funds to invest in for the rest of my life, it would be these four. They have the best combination of:

  • Simplicity
  • Low fees
  • Diversification across asset classes

For most folks, these are the only index funds you really need. You could easily build an entire retirement around just these funds.

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX): The Total Stock Market Index Fund puts investors in the middle of the US. equity market. The fund covers all ranges of investments from small to large-cap and value stocks. Overall stock market volatility is the biggest risk here.
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VTIAX): The VTIAX gives investors exposure to international stock markets which tend to have a low correlation with US stock performance which makes it a great option for diversification. The index focuses on both emerging and developed markets.
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX): This index fund invests 30% in corporate bonds and 70% in U.S. government bonds over a range of short, mid, and long-term levels. This fund invests in all areas of the fixed-income market. It’s a great option for getting full exposure to the US bond market.
  • Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund (VTABX): The VTABX exposes investors to non-U.S. investment-grade bonds. This fund focuses on governments, corporate securities, and international agencies. The fund is a mix of developed and emerging countries.

The Lazy Portfolio of Vanguard Index Funds

If the idea of scouring the list of stock prices makes your head hurt, you could choose a lazy portfolio option. A lazy portfolio option is exactly what it sounds like: investing with minimal effort.

There are a few ways you can do this.

With a two-fund portfolio, you split your investment between stocks and bonds, a popular option is the 60/40 split. By allocating 60% of your investment towards stocks and 40% towards bonds, you put some money at risk for bigger returns while protecting the rest of your investment in bonds which tend to be less risky. If you went this route, you’d have an entire portfolio with just the VTSMX and VBMFX funds.

For the three-fund lazy portfolio, you divide your investments between stocks, international stocks, and bonds. If you follow the 60/40 rule for this type of investment, you would split the 60% stock investment between U.S. based stocks and international stocks, with the remaining 40% in bonds.

Finally, in a four-fund portfolio, you divide your total investment into four parts: U.S. stocks, small-cap U.S. stocks, international stocks, and bonds. Alternatively, you could factor in international bonds over one of the stock options.

Here’s the split that I use:

  • 80% in stocks, 20% in bonds.
  • Of the stock portion, 70% in US stocks, 30% in international stocks.

That’s a super simple yet very effective three-fund lazy portfolio. It requires almost no effort to maintain and has gotten me a handsome 10% annual return during the decade-long bull market that we’ve had.

In general, weight more heavily towards stocks when you’re younger. Then weight more heavily towards bonds as you get close to retirement.

We go into more detail on the lazy portfolio here.

Other Options For Index Funds

While Vanguard is the oldest and most well-known company that provides index funds, there are many companies that offer index funds.

Before you choose a company to work with considering the following:

  • Does this company offer the type of funds I want or need?
  • What are the annual fees like?
  • Are there other service or trading fees?
  • Do I prefer to keep my accounts consolidated at a single bank?
  • How much is the minimum investment required for each fund?
  • Do I need to have an account minimum to maintain a brokerage account with certain companies?

Other index fund options include Schwab, Fidelity, and TD Ameritrade. All three are great options with solid reputations.

The Complete Guide to Vanguard Index Funds is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

Dear Penny: Can I Increase My Social Security After Retiring?

Dear A.,

Most of the advice you’ll find about how to increase your Social Security benefits is essentially: Go back in time, work longer and for more money. Or go back in time and earn more money so you can invest it, and you won’t need to rely on your Social Security benefits.

It’s not bad advice for people who still have decades left until retirement. But it’s not useful for people like you, who are facing the brutal reality that Social Security isn’t enough to live on.

Unfortunately, I bear bad news: Based on what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like there’s a way for you to up your Social Security benefits.

Social Security has two main options for people who start collecting benefits and then change their minds: Withdraw your application within 12 months and repay all the benefits you’ve received. Or ask Social Security to suspend your benefits if you’re at least full retirement age but under 70.

Either tactic results in higher monthly benefits once payments resume because the longer you delay Social Security, the higher your benefit. But obviously, neither is an option in your case. 

So let’s accept that the $1,000 a month you need to quit your retail job isn’t going to come from your Social Security retirement benefits.

That said, you may qualify for assistance beyond your retirement income. You may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or subsidized housing, to name a few possibilities.

The National Council on Aging maintains a database of more than 2,500 assistance programs at benefitscheckup.org. You can search for resources by providing a few details like your ZIP code, date of birth and income.

If you own a home, one option to consider is a reverse mortgage. Basically, you give up your home equity in exchange for monthly payments, a lump sum, a line of credit or a combination of these. Yeah, it’s risky and comes with high fees, but it makes sense for many seniors dealing with a retirement shortfall.

But if none of this proves viable, the question is: Just how much do you hate that retail job? Enough to move somewhere with a lower cost of living? Enough to cut what I’d imagine is already a bare-bones budget even further, say, by going carless and/or taking on a housemate?

Or is there a way you could earn money that’s not as lousy than your part-time retail job? I get it: You’re 70 and exhausted from working. But if that’s truly your only option, consider some alternatives for making money. For example, could driving for Uber or doing a work-from-home customer service job be a little less taxing?

There are no easy solutions here. You do have options, though none of them are perfect. But with persistence, I think you can find some that will make your retirement a lot less stressful.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about retirement to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

2020 will be a challenging year for challenger banks

Over the past year, startup banks have proven that they have a shot at disrupting retail banking. These challengers have amassed a war chest of funding, announced some grandiose international expansion schedules and attracted millions of customers.

And hitherto, construct a bank has proven to be even harder than house a startup in general. Retail banks aren’t willing to sit back and watch startups eat their lunch. Here’s a looked at at “the worlds biggest” moves of its first year from challenger banks, some veers you are able to keep an eye on and the upcoming challenges for those startups.

A year of aggressive expansion

Due to the regulatory framework and the size of the market, it is much easier to launch a challenger bank in Europe compared to anywhere else in the world. That’s why challenger banks have been flourishing in Europe.

When a company gets a full bank license from the central bank of a Member states of the european union, the startup can passport its license across all EU countries and control across the continent.

N2 6 grew a ton of money in 2019: last January, the Berlin-based startup announced a $300 million fund round, raising another $ 170 million in July. The company is now evaluated at $3.5 billion.

With more than 3. 5 million purchasers in Europe, N26 announced some ambitious expansion intentions. N2 6 is now live in the U.S . and is already planning a start in Brazil.

Revolut has been aggressively expanding in order to beat its challengers to brand-new groceries. In addition to being able to its home marketplace in the U.K ., Revolut is available across Europe. In 2019, the company expanded to Singapore and Australia and currently has at least 8 million useds.

While Revolut announced that it should launch in the U.S. and Canada by the end of last year, the clock led out on that prediction. The startup has been very transparent about its expansion strategies, even though it sometimes means that you have to wait months or even years before a full rollout.

For instance, Revolut announced in September 2018 that it would launch in New Zealand, Hong kong residents and Japan “in the coming months.” It later turn “early 2019, ” then “2 019. ” India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and the UAE have also all been mentioned at some stage. In other messages: launching a bank make in a brand-new country is hard.

The U.S. is a dreary grocery as you have to get a license in all 50 states to operate across the country

Monzo has been doing well at home in the U.K. It has attracted 3 million clients and caused PS113 million (~$ 144 m) in funding last year from Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. It is expanding to the U.S ., but the rollout has been slow.

Nubank is another well-funded challenger bank. Backed by Tencent, the startup has raised a $400 million Series F round from TCV. Harmonizing to the WSJ, the startup has a valuation above $10 billion.

Originally from Brazil, Nubank expanded to Mexico and has plans to expand to Argentina.

Chime is increasingly looks a lot like “the worlds biggest” player in the U.S ., recently raising a $500 million fund round and reached a valuation of $ 5.8 billion. It exclusively operates in the U.S.

Starling Bank and Atom Bank simply operate in the U.K. Bunq has its headquarters in Amsterdam with a produce tailor-made for the Netherlands, but it accepts customers across Europe.

This isn’t meant to be an extensive list as it’s becoming increasingly hard to cover all challenger banks.

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Subscription-based business framework

There are a few basic facets that separate challenger banks from legacy retail banks. Ratifying up is extremely simple and only requires a mobile app. The portable app itself is frequently something much improved than traditional banking apps.

Users receive a Mastercard or Visa debit card that communicates with the company’s server for each busines. This road, users can receive instant notifications, block and unblock their posters and put off some facets, such as foreign payments, ATM withdrawals and online transactions.

Challenger banks frequently purchasers predict no markup rewards on deals in foreign currencies, but there are sometimes some limits on this feature.

So how do these companies make money? When you compensate with your card, banks generate a tiny, minuscule interchange fee of coin on each busines. It’s really small, but it could become serious receipt at scale with tens of millions or hundreds of millions of users.

Challenger banks also furnish other financial services like coverage commodities, foreign exchange or consumer credit. Some challenger banks develop those features in house, but many of those features are actually managed by external fintech partners. Challenger banks generate a commission on those products.

But the most promising product is payment subscriptions. While challenger banks started with free chronicles and low-grade, translucent costs, they have been selling premium subscriptions for a chosen monthly fee.

Challenger banks have become a software-as-a-service industry with a freemium component

For example, Revolut offers payment reports for EUR7. 99 per month with higher restrictions, some insurance benefits that you’d expect from a premium card and access to advanced boasts, such as cryptocurrencies and disposable virtual posters. There’s a super premium concoction for EUR1 3.99 called Metal with a metal placard scheme, cashback on card fees and be made available to a concierge feature.

This seems a little counterintuitive, but fee dues ought to have performing well, according to discussions with people working in the industry. You pay a lot in subscription costs in order to avoid big transactional costs.( And you likewise get a cool card .)

Challenger banks have become a software-as-a-service industry with a freemium constituent. It leads to a payment sentiment and high expectations from customers.

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Revolut’s costs top out at EUR1 3.99/ month.

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Interview with Rachel Uwa, founder of the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe

The School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe has recently announced its programme of workshops, trips, scholarship and classes (PDF) for 2020. This year, the school will be looking at drones as a means to investigate concepts of borders, history, politics and human experience; Smell as another way to engage in storytelling; Sensual Technologies that delve into embodiment, desire and the senses; Ethics, AI and the potential of data to disrupt larger systems; there’s also a Made In China program taking place in Shenzhen and focusing on the creative exploration of digital fabrication and IoT. And much more.

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The Berlin-based School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe works with renowned artists, hackers, designers and other creators to teach and explore art, technology, design and human connection. Students learn new skills, manipulate new tools but they also get to inquire the political and human dimensions of technology.

I’ve been involved with the school a couple of times and each time i was amazed by the range of seriously interesting people i met there. The teachers but also the thinkers and tinkerers who attended as students. In my experience, the courses always end up taking the form of an energising exchange between people who have different backgrounds and competences. Another aspect that makes the school so appealing is that it is constantly shifting focus depending on the tech issues and tools that feel most urgent and meaningful at the moment.

I’m not paid to write these lines by the way, i’m just genuinely impressed by the School’s ethos and dynamics.

School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe was founded by Rachel Uwa. Rachel is an artist, educator and organiser with a background in audio engineering and VFX compositing. She’s also the editor of the art/tech zine ¡MEOW! I talked with her during the Winter break:

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Hi Rachel! You’re the face and founder of the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe. Does it mean that you’re the one deciding the type of topics and technologies the courses are going to engage with? What guides the themes of the courses and workshops? Is it technology, requests from students, makers and thinkers? Something else?

Humans and society guide the themes of the school more than anything. Each year I look around at the current state of things and ask, Where are we humans at on the whole? Where are we missing the mark and what feels important for us to know now?

I don’t believe in embracing technology because we can but rather in questioning it and its purpose in our lives.

Some years ago I used to wake up and only seconds after reach for my phone. Then our alcoholic neighbour burned down his flat and we didn’t have internet for a year and a half because the fire burned through the cables. Needless to say, I was forced to reevaluate my relationship to this technology.

This is my approach to it, using technology as a tool that helps us to question the world we live in and ourselves.

So I design educational programs to do just that.

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I love the title of the school. Why Make-Believe? What does the concept brings to the spirit and image of the school?

For me, Make-Believe has always been about imagining a world that doesn’t exist and pretending it’s so for reasons of play (fun), experimenting with what could be (future), and simply survival. These are all super important and underrated life skills that as much as possible I try and bring to the fore.

It’s the kind of education I would love to have had— a gentle and metaphorical approach to dealing with ourselves by putting the focus on something much easier to deal with— technology.

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Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the school is that you make it a priority to work with women and persons from under-represented communities. I wish it wasn’t that ground-breaking to operate this way in the 21st century. And yet, things are moving very slowly it seems. But maybe i’m wrong? Do you feel that the whole tech & creativity world is finally waking up to the facts that talents don’t have to be white and male?

I used to work in audio, then visual effects before getting into the code and tech world. At the time, in each of these fields, there were almost no women to speak of. I’ve always been a person who made it a point to start the women in— audio, tech, etc. group to try and change that.

Looking around now, the situation appears much improved. But not everywhere. I hear often from women in Eastern Europe for example that it’s still a struggle to be taken seriously and it is not isolated to that part of the world only.

One of the things I also see is a lack of confidence in under-represented people in tech (understandably so), so helping people build up confidence to even ask for a seat at the table is another priority for me.

Of course, men always receive more attention even still, let’s be honest.

So we tackle each of these aspects and keep up the good fight until it’s better everywhere. In the end, it’s everyones responsibility to improve this situation, to do better. Even white men!

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The school was born in 2014. I actually thought it was created earlier given how much it has accomplished in such a short amount of time. What are the moments, achievements you’re particularly proud of? 

To still be alive, surviving and constantly evolving is right up there on my list of achievements. I see so many organisations shut down operations. Without any institutional support it’s really a tough world out here.

I also feel proud about having run programs and workshops in other countries which I’ve been doing for several years. Thus far we’ve been in Italy, Serbia, Spain, China and Ireland. It’s immersive learning on all fronts— via culture, technology, community, ourselves. I hope to add more countries to the list soon.

The School offers many courses to learn about IoT, VR, data viz, drones, AI, etc. Which sounds very tech-driven but how does the school address a more systemic critique of tech and challenge western-centric notions of progress and innovations?

As I tried to allude to earlier, yes, we run workshops on technology but it’s not to fully embrace it; the first step is always to question it.

How does this technology make our lives easier? How is this technology used against us? In what ways can we use this technology to express who we are and what we care about (because it matters)?

Last year I was part of a think tank where one guy stood up and was like, “I don’t agree with this idea about diversity in the workplace. I don’t see race or gender.” After being annoyed because he was actually referring to my comment about the lack of diversity the day before, I realised he did have a point.

In the workplace people mute who they are and what they care about because that’s the culture. So you can look around at a group of diverse people and not necessarily see any diversity. I believe that self-suppression, which is very much a part of corporate culture, is doing way more harm than good, giving the false impression that diversity brings nothing to the table. I hope slowly this will start to change.

Of course, I address all these kinds of things and more in each of our programs. These are the fundamentals.

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This is going to sound super cheesy but i’ve always admired your maverick and daring attitude. You didn’t chose an easy path. An US citizen alone in Berlin builds up her own school from scratch. Would you do things differently if you had to do it all over again?

Well, first of all, Régine, thank you. You know I feel the same way about you! To answer the question, I think living through painful shit makes you a survivor. Of course, I don’t wish a hard life on anybody. But I do believe if we have lived through something, in childhood or onwards, sometimes we can use the injustice of our world to fuel our courage.

That said, while I don’t have a problem with courage, I do have a problem asking for help. So I’m starting to learn better how to navigate that world of asking for what I need because I finally understand what I need. It can feel so awkward and difficult. If you’re a person who’s received such an email from me, well, now you know, I’m still learning!

And yet communication is one of those all-important skills we need for survival.

I’ve been watching some Tupac and Biggie documentaries lately and from what I can tell, it seems if only they’d had a chance to really talk, the story of their lives could have played out so differently! So I think regardless of how it feels, it’s worth it to keep at it, to keep trying to improve communication until the end.

And on the other hand, what are the advantages of throwing yourself at a project with a lot of audacity and independence but not a lot of financial backing?

Lots of people have ideas but don’t make progress because all they see are the obstacles: I need money, I need a developer, I need fill-in-the-blank. Having an alternative mindset is imperative to a life of making things happen. Would I like funding and financial support? Yes, and if someone reading this would like to give it to me, please get in touch!

But I’ve been running the school for five years, designing over 27+ four-week, full-time programs with hundreds of brilliant students and instructors from over 52 countries and I am a better person for it. So I recommend to anyone, move forward on ideas that are important whatever it takes and allow these experiences to change and guide you.

Have you ever been tempted to set up the school back in the US?

I’ve definitely had ideas about running programs in a few states specific to organisations and people I’d like to work with. But there are so many fascinating people and places in the world that in comparison the US feels kind of limiting. I’m not opposed to it. But it’s not at the forefront of my mind just yet.

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Can you take us through the 2020 programme of the school?

Sure! Well, overall it has to do with this idea that if we want better societies we have to become better people.

So what does it mean to become a better person? I’m suggesting that we start off by becoming the greatest observers of ourselves and our own human needs and experiences, because if we want to know others it starts with knowing ourselves. It’s not the whole story, mind you, but it’s a brave start.

So 2020 classes are all aimed in that direction and are about exploring human experience through play and technology— our senses (Smell, Crafting Food Experiences), our bodies (Sensual Tech), nature (Nature, Generative Art & Machine Learning), our ability to tell intriguing stories and change minds (Transmedia Storytelling), the messages we convey when taking art out of the gallery and into public space (Interactive Berlin), our data and our selves (Ethics, AI and Data) and finally ever-growing in importance, our relationships to other cultures and to machines (Made In China II, Drones, Physical Machines).

My curriculum is my art! Haha. In part, anyway.

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Projected photo that sees you looking at him by Michal Shilo at the Machine Learning course

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Any other ambitions, projects and wishes for the future of the SoMM&MB?

Always! I’m working on— documentation of the first five years, more online classes, a symposium on designing better societies, more collaborations with humans and institutions I believe in, consultancy in education design, more pancake society events and ¡MEOW! zines, expanding to other countries and holding classes in languages other than English—for a start. And finally securing some funding! After all these years and all this work, I think we deserve it!

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Thanks Rachel!

Early program applications and hardship scholarship applications are currently being accepted. Deadline to apply for either of these is 26 January 2020. Early program applicants will be eligible to receive a 20% reduced fee if they are accepted.

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TAKE me BACK to JUPITER! An arcade game played by humans and houseflies

TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!, Drew Thornton‘s master project in Biological Arts at SymbioticA, is an immersive virtual reality console for flies. During the exhibition of the work, human and insect participants ally to fight the invasion of dangerous aliens.

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Drew Thornton, TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!, 2019

The arcade-style video game is both a tongue-in-cheek interactive biological art installation and an interdisciplinary project grounded in scientific research about houseflies behaviour. As the artist explains in the video below “things don’t have to be logical to be meaningful.” The experiment has several goals: to “entertain” all players, to invite to a reflection on non-human consciousness but also to offer an opportunity to rethink the way we view “annoying insects” at a time when insects numbers are plummeting across the globe, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”.

Interview with Drew Thornton by Weilin Chi (Science Communication student at the University of Western Australia).

I caught up with the artist as he was putting the finishing touches on the installation:

auto traffic exchangeHi Drew! Let’s start with your background! You worked as an illustrator so what brought you to biological art? 

In actual fact, my education has always been in both art and science, and I for most of my life I imagined I would end up in a field related to the biological sciences. Illustration has mostly been something I did for my own enjoyment, as a creative outlet.

I love learning about the world around us, and particularly I love the intricacies and surprises found within biological systems. However, I also think that creative expression is how I come to grips with my (and our) place in the world, and without this outlet I was struggling to to make my studies feel meaningful.

It was great to discover a field where I can bring all of my skills to bear, rather than always feel like I’m always leaving half of myself on the sidelines. Also, I still found an opportunity to include some of my own artwork in the project, putting together an illustrated game manual to accompany the game.

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Drew Thornton, TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!, 2019

You are interested in how we perceive consciousness in non-human intelligence. Do you think that this topic is not adequately addressed by the scientific community and/or understood by the public? 

I think that beneath our everyday use of the term, consciousness is a bit of a vague notion, and ultimately unhelpful. The thing about consciousness is that we can’t perceive it—it seems to be too closely coupled to the act of perception itself to be directly observed. Of course, we experience consciousness within ourselves (or think we do), but we can’t step outside of consciousness in order to quantitatively describe it.

Honestly, trying to explain even human consciousness risks talking yourself in endless circles, and outside of humans it only gets trickier. That’s where art can be valuable, as it’s more interested in the real experiencing of things than in the illusion of understanding.

Why did you think that gaming is a good medium to explore consciousness in flies (or any other animal)? 

Acts of play are a great way of actively engaging an audience, and can create good will and the sense of presence and immersion in players. It’s a way of building and troubling interrelationships in a controlled environment. The digital medium is a tool to connect the subjective worlds of disparate participants (human and animal) through a simulated and translated experience.

Alright, so maybe that all sounds like techno-babble. What I really think is that to explore consciousness, you need to actually step outside of your own mind and interact with others. Gaming is a great way to facilitate that kind of interaction.

And i guess this is a stupid question but why flies? Wouldn’t have been easier to work with pigs which are notoriously smart and social creatures for example? Besides, pigs are cute and flies perhaps a bit less….

Ahaha, no! This is the most important question to ask. The glib answer is that I relish a challenge. Pigs and especially dogs are animals most of us already feel like we can relate to; sure it would be fun to take your dog to the arcade, but doing so doesn’t really tell us anything new or surprising about dogs or the way we perceive them.

On the other hand, flies are animals that we have all encountered, but likely haven’t given much thought to their psychology. I wanted to push myself creatively, theoretically and technically and challenge the audience to relate to something outside of their normal comfort zone.

I think there’s value in that, too: ecologically, insects are important, and currently imperilled. Something needs to change in the way we relate to them—individually and culturally—if we are to successfully cohabitate on this planet.

Also I just think insects are cool. Flies can be cute, I promise!

TAKE me BACK to JUPITER! is an immersive VR gaming closure in which humans can engage in an arcade game with flies. Could you describe the game? What do humans and flies have to do? 

Okay so first, I need to offer a small point of clarification for readers: the console’s virtual reality enclosure is only for the flies; I just couldn’t make controllers small enough for their tiny hands, ahaha. The enclosure is a glass cube with a row of LED lights along the front, and a motion-tracking camera placed at the bottom. This gives the fly visual targets to react to, and allows its actions to effect the game environment.

In the game, the human and fly player work together to fend off incoming aliens. You, the human, illuminate targets for the fly by shining your spaceship’s spotlight on columns of aliens (think Space Invaders, but with extra teamwork). All the fly has to do is fly towards the light, which—if it’s quick enough— eliminates the corresponding alien on your screen.

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Drew Thornton, TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!, 2019

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Drew Thornton, TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!, 2019

How did you design the game to ensure that flies would actually react and play or look as if they were playing with the human audience? 

I wanted this project to be grounded in the actual behaviour of flies; rather than trying to produce new fly behaviours catered towards a human gaming experience, the aim was to design for an existent point of commonality. This involved first understanding how flies perceive and experience the world, then creating a game environment where fly behaviour is aligned with human experience (and vice versa), and finally the technical design and build of a console to facilitate this kind of play experience.

Male houseflies have a territorial pursuit behaviour, which can be reproduced in response to flashing lights or suspended targets (which to a fly’s vision look like other flies). Not only is this something I thought I could accommodate in a digital environment, it’s also an appropriate game activity—flying around in chase of enemies could be made into something both insect and human could enjoy*.

Did you test the game with an audience? How did it go and what did you and other players learn from the experience? 

The game prototype was presented to an audience at a “launch” event in October, hosted by game museum The Nostalgia Box (a great venue, worth a visit) in Northbridge, Perth.

Unfortunately, I was unable to exhibit a fully operational version of the game console—the timeline for my build was blown clear out of the water by a computer communications protocol issue, and as a result I didn’t quite manage to troubleshoot the whole system. On the night it basically came down to a faulty light-switch!

Even so, I was really taken with the audience response. While they didn’t get to play the game, I think even the promise of it was enough to make people view the fly as a teammate rather than adversary. So even if the project was a technical failure, it felt like a conceptual and artistic success.

The title of your work is quite intriguing. Why did you call it TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!?

I wanted to attribute some of the grandeur and mystery of the gas giant to organisms that seem humble and lowly in our eyes.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, dwarfing Earth, and its gravitational effects contribute to the relatively sheltered and stable orbits of the inner planets (we haven’t had an extinction-level impact in over 65 million years!) This seemed comparable to the role of insects in Earth ecosystems, where

It’s also a dual title, reflecting the recurrent apposition of perspectives in the project: in the animated title sequence, “TAKE me BACK to JUPITER!” becomes “TAKE BACK JUPITER!”. The allusions in the game manual are similarly vague about the nature of the alien conflict. When we return to Jupiter, will it be as prodigal children, or cruel invaders?

free traffic to my websiteAny upcoming work, event or field of research you could share with us? 

So I have a few projects ticking over, including a book chapter hopefully being published late 2020/early 2021. The topic is “sexy fish monsters in fantasy and myth”, which I assure you is academically very rigorous. I’ll also be giving a special Valentine’s Day lecture on the subject in February, as part of the SymbioticA Friday Seminar series. 

I pushed myself pretty hard with this project, so I’m taking it a little more relaxed at the moment, and I’d like to revisit TAKE my BACK to JUPITER! at the start of next year for a more finessed exhibition. Meanwhile, I’d like to get my website up and running properly (it’s a real mess right now), and I’ll probably keep uploading little doodles to my page whenever I feel like it.

Thanks Drew!

*I know that using “enjoy” to describe a fly’s experience might feel incredulous, but whether flies’ behaviour is motivated by an internal feeling of gratification or not, they do it all the same so I think it’s a forgivable stretch.

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Geico Renters Insurance Review 2020

Geico is well known for offering a wide range of insurance options at an affordable price. But compared to other providers, Geico’s renters insurance policies are average.

Basic renters insurance policies from Geico include personal property, personal liability and living expenses coverage. Additional coverage includes options for stocks, bonds, fine jewelry, business property or other valuable items. Like most renters insurance policies, Geico will pay to repair or replace your belongings if they are damaged by fire, smoke, vandalism, theft, extreme wind and water.

Find the Best Renter Insurance

Enter your ZIP code below and be sure to click at least 2-3 companies to find the very best rate.

The specs

Price Varies by state, type of home and personal factors
Best for Renters looking for low-cost premiums
Not for Renters who place high value on customer service
States served 50
Discounts
  • Multi-policy
  • Home security systems
  • Fire sprinklers
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Smoke alarms
AM Best Rating A++
Standout features
  • Online and mobile app tools
  • Additional coverage for valuables
  • Affordable premiums

The claim

Most people are familiar with Geico’s signature catchphrase, “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.” But if Geico is preaching steep savings for auto insurance, the same claim should be true for other types of insurance it offers.

Is it true?

It’s difficult to tell how accurate this money-saving claim really is without doing a head-to-head comparison of Geico’s quotes against other providers. The other sticking point of this claim is that insurance quotes vary dramatically based on a number of factors—the state you live in, your credit score, your claims history and even your gender and marital status.

Geico is known for offering more affordable premiums than other providers. However, it’s hard to believe that every person who uses Geico insurance is paying 15 percent less than they would with another insurer. Depending on their previous insurance company, some people may be able to save 15 percent or more, but some might save less or even pay more.

When we look at renters insurance specifically, another reason why it’s difficult to validate Geico’s claim is because the company hasn’t been included in J.D. Power’s U.S. Renters Insurance Study for the past several years. The last time Geico made the list was in 2016, when it received 3 out of 5 stars for overall satisfaction, which is considered average.

The fact that the company has been absent from J.D. Power’s study in recent years reinforces the fact that Geico probably doesn’t provide the same level of quality, price and service other insurance companies do in the renters insurance category.

Our deep dive

Here is what you can expect to get from Geico’s renters insurance policy:

  • Personal property coverage: Geico’s personal property coverage protects your belongings if they get damaged or destroyed by a covered peril, including fire, smoke damage, vandalism, theft, wind and water damage.
  • Personal liability coverage: If you accidentally damage someone else’s home or belongings, your personal liability coverage will help you pay for the repairs. It will also cover someone’s medical bills if they were to get injured in your home.
  • Additional living expenses coverage: Should your home get damaged or destroyed in a covered peril and you have to live elsewhere, Geico will reimburse your hotel and restaurant bills until you have a permanent residence.
  • Replacement cost coverage: Instead of paying actual cash value to replace your items, which factors in depreciation, Geico uses replacement cost coverage to reimburse you for losses.
  • Limited discounts: Geico only offers a few ways to save on your renters insurance—bundling your policies and having certain safety features in your home, like fire alarms and sprinklers.
  • Personal property calculator: With Geico’s personal property calculator, you can estimate the total value of your personal belongings in order to determine how much coverage you should purchase.
  • Extra coverage for valuables: Geico offers additional insurance coverage for expensive items, like fine jewelry, coin collections, sporting equipment and specialized electronics. This coverage comes at an added cost.
  • Business merchandise coverage: If you sell items on eBay or other stores, Geico will cover common losses, like lost or damaged packages.

Cost rundown

Renters insurance quotes vary by person, so the only way to know exactly how much you’ll pay for a Geico policy is to get a quote. There are a variety of factors that influence how much your premium will be. Some factors have to do with your personal background, and others are related to the home you want to insure.

Also keep in mind that basic renters insurance plans do not include coverage for earthquake or flood losses. If you live in a state that is susceptible to either, you will need to purchase a separate policy.

Cheaper (or free!) alternatives

Renters insurance is already pretty affordable, but there are some additional ways to save.

  • Raise your credit score: The higher your credit score, the better deal you’ll get. Increasing your credit score can help you save money on your premium over time.
  • Increase your deductible: By increasing your deductible, you’re agreeing to pay more out-of-pocket to cover your losses before the insurance company steps in. As a result, you’ll pay less every year.
  • Bundle your insurance policies: Geico offers discounts on renters insurance for policy bundling, so consider switching your auto insurance to Geico as well.
  • Get multiple quotes: You’ll always find the best deal when you get quotes from multiple providers. Geico might not necessarily be the best or cheapest option for you.
  • Make your home safer: Geico gives customers discounts on their renters insurance if they install anti-theft and fire safety features in their home, like fire sprinklers and alarms.

The competition

Geico is not the only option for renters insurance available. Here are a few competitors that you can also get quotes and information from.

  • Allstate: Allstate also ranked well in J.D. Power’s Study, and is ideal for people who have never had an insurance claim. Allstate offers a discount of up to 20 percent and bonus savings for every year that customers stay claim-free.
  • American Family: American Family earned the top spot in J.D Power’s 2019 U.S. Renters Insurance Study. The company earned a perfect 5-star rating across the board for overall satisfaction, policy offerings, price, billing, claims handling and customer service.
  • Nationwide: In J.D. Power’s study, Nationwide received about average ratings in most categories, but it earned a 5-star rating for claims handling. Nationwide is a good option for people who want comprehensive coverage options. Basic renters insurance policies include personal and liability coverage, as well as credit card coverage and covered damages for home improvements.
  • State Farm: State Farm was a close runner up in J.D. Power’s study, with 5 star ratings across the board, except for a dismal 2 out of 5 star rating for claims handling. State Farm is a good option for people who care about high quality customer service but aren’t as focused on price.

    What others are saying

    Looking at customer reviews on Geico’s Better Business Bureau page, it’s not uncommon for customers to complain about the poor customer service. Note that while these reviews refer to Geico in general, they might also apply to renters insurance too.

    According to one customer, “The company only cares about the premium you pay them and when they are needed they leave you to fend for themselves.” Other customers caution against inaccurate payouts, raising rates for seemingly no reason and a slow claims handling process.

    The bottom line

    Geico renters insurance can be a good option if you want bare bones coverage for a fair price or already have another type of insurance with Geico. However, if you value reliable customer service, discount options and more flexible policy options, you’rebetter off taking your business elsewhere.

    The post Geico Renters Insurance Review 2020 appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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    Should I Do My Own Taxes? 4 Times You Can Use Free Tax Software

    If you have a traditional office job and receive a W-2 with no other complicating circumstances, preparing your tax return isn’t hard — just a pain. You’ll populate a number of boxes in some tax software, review it for accuracy and send it off to the IRS. All told, it’s not necessarily time-intensive. It’s just something else for your to-do list. 

    On the other hand, imagine having a W-2 from one job, receiving a collection of 1099s in the mail and then tracking a laundry list of write-offs related to your business or freelancing. For the uninitiated, this is daunting. 

    How do you know when you need a professional’s help with taxes? Understandably, you don’t want to make any mistakes if you decide to do your own taxes.

    Quite often, the question of “Should I do my own taxes using tax software or hire a professional?” comes down to how comfortable you feel doing your taxes yourself. 

    These days, the best tax software programs do an excellent job of guiding you through preparing your tax return, often eliminating the need for a tax professional. And if you start down this path but find yourself needing extra assistance, some also provide access to professionals for a fee.

    Last year’s tax season was the first with the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act rules in effect. After learning how you fared under the changes, you may have a bit more certainty about your tax circumstances this year. Even so, maybe last year’s changes proved too much for you to handle on your own. Perhaps you’d still like to hire a professional to ensure the job is done correctly. 

    While this represents another expense, it might result in a bigger refund in the end. By hiring a tax professional, you might find yourself with a bigger refund as a result of better handling your tax deductions and credits. 

    4 Times You Should DIY Your Tax Return

    To understand when it makes sense to DIY your tax return vs. hire a tax professional, consider some common scenarios described below.

    1. You Only Have One Job

    Have you ever heard the phase, “Keep it simple, stupid”, or K.I.S.S.? Basically, it means you shouldn’t add unneeded complexity to a situation. When you prepare your taxes and you only have one job with a single W-2 and no other income, seeking help from a tax professional may violate the K.I.S.S. ethos.

    This situation probably doesn’t require a seasoned pro. It can usually be left to the likes of free tax software to prepare your form and submit it.

    2. You Didn’t Experience a Life-Changing Event

    If you didn’t have a major life change in 2019 (think wedding, divorce, birth of a child, etc.), you can likely roll forward most of the previous year’s information and elections. But make sure to update any new sources of income or deductible expenses. 

    In years you do encounter significant life events, if they’re pretty straightforward, tax software still may be able to handle your needs. However, when several events stack up in the same year, things can get confusing. Seeking the help of a tax pro might be in your best interest.

    3. You’re Claiming the Standard Deduction

    Tax reform did a useful thing for many: It made itemizing your deductions more difficult. 

    It essentially doubled the standard deduction, making it less worthwhile to itemize your deductions. So it’s less likely you’ll need to know about what does or doesn’t qualify as a deduction. Free tax software might handle your needs just fine.

    While you don’t need to track your expenses to claim the standard deduction, you will still want to track and tally your deductions because these might prove useful on your state income tax return where applicable. 

    If you understand and can easily insert these expenses into your state income tax return, tax software will handle your needs just fine.

    4. You Didn’t Buy a Home

    Before tax reform, buying a house was often the gateway into itemizing your deductions. Numerous expenses qualified for deduction including mortgage interest, real estate taxes and more.

    These are still deductible, but the higher standard deduction, along with new caps on state and local taxes and the qualifying amount of interest associated with mortgage principal that you can deduct have hampered the cost-effectiveness of owning a home.

    Fortunately, the new limit on qualified mortgage interest associated with principal only applies to mortgages originated on or after Dec. 14, 2017.

    In the event you did nothing with real estate and did not buy a house, you won’t need to track such expenses. In that case, free tax software can be a better choice.

    4 Times It Makes Sense to Hire a Tax Pro

    Here are some common scenarios where you may benefit from hiring a tax pro.

    1. You Had Multiple Sources of Income

    The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act brought significant changes for those who work multiple jobs, freelance, have side hustles or own their own businesses. 

    Those savvy enough to earn extra income and consider it as part of a trade or business will likely qualify for a 20% qualified business income (QBI) deduction on that income. However, the QBI rules are complicated, so it might make sense to hire a professional.

    If you operate any of these activities as a sole proprietorship, you might miss numerous benefits by doing your own taxes. And when these activities scale enough, it could amount to significant tax liability — and potential missed deductions and credits.

    While you might think a minor side hustle is not worth speaking with a tax professional about, it might still be a good idea. While software can serve as a great tool for uncomplicated tax situations, a CPA can help you find tax breaks by learning more about your unique circumstances.

    2. You Own and Rent Out Property

    Rental properties are a popular tool for building wealth because they can produce capital gains as the property appreciates in value, along with income from renters occupying the property. The numerous deductions associated with the property can go a long way toward shielding that precious rental income. 

    A tax professional can help you manage the expenses related to maintaining your unit(s) and navigate the tricky depreciation, capitalization and expensing rules.  

    The time may come to sell this property, and handling the disposition will prove especially tricky for the inexperienced. Don’t risk misstating your gains and potentially costing yourself thousands in taxes.

    3. You Itemize Your Deductions

    If you’re not claiming the standard deduction, you may have incurred a significant level of expenses during the year. Because some expenses exist in a gray area and there are numerous deductions to know, soliciting the help of a tax professional might prove a smart investment on your part.

    Hiring a tax pro could result in claiming more tax deductions and, therefore, reduce your overall tax liability. In a sense, if you hire a tax pro who can uncover more expenses than you otherwise could yourself, the additional savings on your tax bill might end up paying for the tax advice. Not only would more money stay in your pocket (as opposed to going into Uncle Sam’s), but you’d also spend less time preparing your return.

    4. You Experienced a Major Life Change

    Life has many turns — suppose that in 2019, you made a cross-country move, had a change in family status or welcomed a new child. As a result, you want to make sure to prepare accordingly from a tax perspective.  

    The number of events that can affect your filing status and claims are endless. Navigating these changes isn’t always straightforward, especially when your mind may not be up for the task. A professional will make any tax benefits work to your advantage, as well as use other strategies to minimize your tax liability.

    Specifically regarding divorce: Married taxpayers who file jointly are both responsible for all taxes owed on their joint return. In other words, should Spouse A work as a lawyer earning $300,000 per year, and Spouse B work as a school teacher bringing home $30,000 per year, both spouses share equal liability in paying for the taxes owed on their joint tax return. 

    In divorce, when these taxpayers file separately, they will only need to claim their earned income and should not include any potential child support or alimony paid/received.

    Should I Do My Own Taxes or Hire a Pro?

    When you weigh whether to hire a tax pro or prepare your own taxes using tax software, the choice ultimately comes down to the complexity of your tax situation, your comfort level, the effort you’re willing to invest and the cost.

    Finding your unique balance between these elements should guide your decision and lead you to the lowest tax liability.

    Riley Adams is a CPA who is originally from New Orleans and works as a senior financial analyst at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also runs the personal finance website Young and the Invested, which is dedicated to helping young professionals explore financial independence and entrepreneurship.

    This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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    Wealthsimple Review 2020 – Robo Advisor & Wealthsimple Trade [UNIQUE PROMO]

    Now that Wealthsimple Trade has launched, and the robo advisor service has gotten so popular, I figured that it was time to take a serious look at the service.  If you’re the TLDR type, then this Wealthsimple review might be a bit lengthy for your tastes.  Feel free to navigate using our table of contents…

    The post Wealthsimple Review 2020 – Robo Advisor & Wealthsimple Trade [UNIQUE PROMO] appeared first on Million Dollar Journey.

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    What I Gave Up And What I Gained

    There’s a strong perception out there that living on less than you earn translates into some kind of miserable existence where you don’t have any of the things you enjoy and you sit Scrooge-like in the corner of some decrepit room counting your coins. It’s not hard to see some variation of this in popular culture, which constantly portrays spending above and beyond your means as “cool” and being thrifty as either outright weird or only something that a few specific subgroups care much about.

    I believed that for years. I believed that if I tried to commit to a life of spending less, it would be a miserable existence. I believed that if I tried to change financial direction, I would just be a Scrooge-like miser. I believed that anyone cool couldn’t possibly save money. I believed that I had to spend every dime I had to keep up appearances and to keep myself entertained. I believed that, sure, being financially responsible might gain me something in the long term, but in the short term, life would be pretty un-fun.

    It turns out that none of those things were true. I gave up far less than I thought, and I gained far more than I thought, both in the short term and in the long term.

    Let’s take a look.

    I gave up one hobby — among quite a few — that I cared about, and had to change a couple of others.

    The one hobby I gave up was golfing. I used to go golfing with a small group about once every other week for years. We’d get a golf cart, cruise around, hit some balls badly, talk some trash and go back to the clubhouse. It was fun, I’ll admit, but it was honestly just one hobby of mine, something I did about once every other week.

    I had to somewhat change two other hobbies. I’ve always been a big reader, but I bought a lot of books, enough that they were overflowing our shelves. I simply scaled back my book purchasing and started focusing more on “collecting” a list of books I’ve read (I’ll get back to this in a bit). I was also an avid player and collector of Magic: The Gathering, a hobby I really got into in college and one that expanded in expense after graduating. Rather than just buying and buying more cards, I transformed this hobby into one that was focused on trading for value. Those things both remained a part of my life, just with some tweaks.

    Those three changes — giving up golfing and tweaking two other hobbies — cut my hobby spending by something around 90% by my best estimates at the time.

    I basically didn’t touch any of my other hobbies. I loved going on hikes, reading books, taking long walks, and I love them now, too. I still enjoy playing computer games and video games, though my tastes and style of play has changed due to my own changing interests — I’m now much more of a completionist and a deep-diver into specific games rather than getting games and playing them for a short while before moving on, and I don’t really enjoy playing games that rely on fast reflexes at all anymore.

    I gained a few other hobbies.

    In the process of learning how to be more frugal, as well as simply having children and exploring new things because of them, I picked up a few new hobbies along the way. My life didn’t become some kind of empty shell.

    I became much more interested in board games and other tabletop games, kind of as an outgrowth of my Magic: The Gathering hobby. I started building a collection of these games and playing them with family and friends, mostly funded by trading Magic cards for them and trading games that didn’t click with me for other games. Trading games to acquire other ones so that I eventually have a shelf full of games that I deeply love is a big part of this hobby for me, though it’s secondary to actually playing the games. This also helps keep the cost low.

    I’ve become very passionate about cooking and making food items. I love preparing dinner for my family and trying new things while balancing tastiness and healthiness. I love making food items like fermented pickles, sauerkraut, homemade bread and tortillas. I love the process, and the end result is usually something delicious for my family to eat that’s often less expensive than buying the equivalent at the store.

    My entire family practices taekwondo together as a family activity. A local school tries to get whole families involved and offers a really nice family group rate, so we go to lots of classes and work on techniques at home together as we all progress toward improving our belt rank.

    In the end, I actually have more active hobbies now than I ever have. Some of my other hobbies have actually declined in the amount of time I spend on them simply because I have so many things to choose from, and the time I used to spend on golf has been more than eaten up by other hobbies.

    I learned that I don’t have to throw money at a hobby to deeply and passionately enjoy it.

    I gave up a lot of forgettable incidental spending.

    One big misconception about cutting back on your spending that people have is that you’re going to cut back on things you really care about. People always envision “cutting back” by thinking about things they love and about how “cutting back” on that thing will be miserable and un-fun.

    Guess what? It is miserable and un-fun to cut back on things you care about.

    The real trick is to figure out where you’re spending money on things you don’t care about or that you care little about in the big scheme of things and cut back hard on those things.

    I cut back on trips to the convenience store near our apartment — in fact, I basically deleted those.

    I cut back on stops at the coffee shop and gradually migrated to making cold brew coffee at home because I realized that I really liked a cup of good coffee in the morning but it didn’t have to be made by a barista and cost $7.

    I switched to buying store brand versions of a lot of things at the grocery store rather than name brand versions.

    I took on a lot of little projects around the apartment (and, later, the house) to make everything more energy efficient with little or no further effort.

    I looked at how I did a lot of common tasks (like doing the laundry) and worked to make them as time and money efficient as possible.

    None of these changes altered anything I really cared about. When I thought about spending that mattered to me then, or spending that matters to me now, none of these things are touched upon.

    Perhaps some of these things — like the coffee shop visits — really matter a lot to you. Great. Don’t cut them. Look for the stuff that doesn’t matter much and cut that instead. Does buying name brand dishwashing detergent versus store brand really matter much to you?

    I gained a more low-stress life.

    When I first started changing my finances around, I didn’t really appreciate how much low-level stress our financial difficulty was adding to my life.

    I felt additional professional stress because I knew that a job loss, even for a little while, would be apocalyptic. Even a late paycheck could be a problem.

    I felt stress about my own future because I knew I was getting older but I wasn’t really preparing for my old age. This was small and subtle, but real.

    I felt stress about my child’s future and my wife’s future, too. I knew, on some level, that I wasn’t taking care of my family.

    I felt stress about checking the mail because I knew there were often bills in there that I didn’t want to face.

    I felt stress about a lot of spending situations because I was always worried about a declined credit card or an overdraft.

    I felt an enormous flood of stress every time something went even a little wrong because I was unsure how to pay for it.

    I felt these stresses, but I didn’t really understand how much they added up or how many of them were directly tied to my finances.

    As I began to get a better grip on my finances, every single one of those stresses began to melt and fade into the background. They gradually became less and less prevalent.

    I gave up a lot of stuff I didn’t use.

    One big step I took initially was to go through my closets and collections and do something of a Marie Kondo strategy in terms of processing all that stuff. I simply went through each thing and decided if I really loved that thing a lot or whether I didn’t, and if I didn’t, I sold it off.

    I was under the impression that this would be a very painful thing to do. It really wasn’t. It mostly just required some honesty about my possessions. I just kept the stuff that was really meaningful to me, and that meant honestly thinking about what stuff mattered and what stuff didn’t. When I started realizing which things mattered and which things didn’t, this actually became really easy and not painful at all.

    For me, the breakthrough came when I considered whether I had used each item in any significant way in the last year or so. If it had just sat on a shelf or in a closet for a year untouched, my actions were showing me that it really wasn’t very important to me. I might want to think it was important, but if I hadn’t touched it in a year, was it really that important?

    For stuff that I was in doubt about, I put it in a box and wrote a date on top, a date several months in the future. Anything still in that box after that date could be sold off, no questions asked.

    This served a few purposes.

    First of all, it generated some quick cash to tackle my debts immediately. I took a lot of those items straight to Craigslist and eBay and converted them straight into cash, which I immediately used to pay off my highest interest debts.

    Second, it showed me that I was in the habit of buying a lot of things that I didn’t really care about a month or two later. Those kinds of expenses are really, really wasteful. They don’t make your life any better in the long run, but spending that money so foolishly certainly does make your life worse. This was actually pretty useful in terms of positively affecting my spending habits going forward.

    Third and finally, it freed up a lot of space in our apartment. It was getting pretty cramped with stuff and clearing out a lot of items made it feel a lot more livable. I didn’t realize how cramped things had become and how much time and energy I was spending moving stuff around and looking for items.

    This “item purge” was a huge net positive when I initially expected it to be somewhat negative.

    I gained a ton of professional freedom.

    At the time of our financial turnaround, I had a job in a very different career path. I wrote software in a research environment that was intended to help researchers make sense of large quantities of data. This meant that I was doing some data mining myself as well as writing tools to help scientists that weren’t programmers perform specific data mining tasks on very large data sets.

    I enjoyed the intellectual challenges of the job a lot, and I enjoyed the people I worked with, especially the small team I worked most closely with. Unfortunately, that was balanced with a lot of things I didn’t like. I spent a lot of time on paperwork and bureaucratic tasks. I was traveling a lot and I felt like I was missing my child grow up. I was also charged with a lot of work tasks that were way outside of my field of expertise and held responsible for things that I didn’t really understand and didn’t have time to learn about, but my neck was on the line if anything went wrong with those things.

    As time went on, the interesting and joyful parts of my job became smaller and smaller and the parts that made me unhappy became larger and larger.

    What made this worse is that I was financially handcuffed to this job. Our financial instability made it such that I couldn’t risk rocking the boat at work, or at least I felt like I couldn’t. Looking for a different job in the same field felt pretty risky, too.

    All of this meant that I was very prone to unreasonable demands at work. I was thrown all kinds of responsibilities way outside of any sort of reasonable expectations of my expertise. I was asked to work unbilled hours on weekends. I traveled far more than I wanted to. If tools weren’t working, even if I had nothing to do with the reason, intense pressure was put on me to get them working immediately. The team size was downgraded at the same time that our production schedule was accelerated. I was actually asked to do work tasks while my wife was in labor with our first child.

    This was not the life I wanted.

    What I learned was that it was my own overspending habits that kept me handcuffed to that job. As I began to improve our financial state, build an emergency fund, get rid of debts, and stabilize, I felt a lot less handcuffed to that job. The sense of threat and foreboding that I had about almost everything I was doing there began to ebb away. I started refusing unreasonable things that I would have meekly accepted earlier.

    Eventually, as I started writing about my experiences on The Simple Dollar, I began to realize that writing was a career option for me. It meant a pay cut, but it had a lot of other benefits. It was an option that was on the table for me.

    At the same time, I also looked at a lot of other options within my data mining career path. I even started considering going back to school and studying a completely different field.

    Those options weren’t really there before our financial turnaround. Because our financial state had improved so much, I felt free to walk away from that job and try something new, and I eventually decided that writing full time was the best path for me for a number of reasons (the schedule flexibility was a big part of it). That would never have been an option without a vast improvement in our financial flexibility.

    I lost a few friends.

    During the process of making these changes, I lost a few friends. It wasn’t due to some kind of blowup or disagreement. Rather, in each case, I found that the friendship was actually more about the shared activity than actual friendship.

    The other people that I went golfing with disappeared out of my life in short order. I didn’t play golf anymore, so we didn’t have that common activity to share, so we just had much less in common. What little we did still have in common was replaceable. They found someone else to golf with. I bump into one of them occasionally and we get along fine. We catch each other up on our lives, then go on our merry way until we happen to bump into each other again. I haven’t seen the others in a decade.

    I used to go out for drinks with a group after work and thought of several of them as friends, but when I started spending less time with that group, I was no longer involved in the group texts or anything else. It was a group of people to drink with, not friendships.

    This might seem like the end of my social life, but it wasn’t. I actually retained a lot of friends and I ended up gaining quite a few more very strong friendships, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

    What I really learned is this: there are some people in your life that will hang out with you because you enjoy a shared activity of some kind, but if you don’t engage in that activity, they won’t engage with you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can feel like a lost friendship if you place too value on that connection.

    If you change your social activities, you’re going to lose some people that you might think of as friends. That’s okay. Deeper friendships will last, and you’ll find new casual friends with whatever you switch to.

    I gained more friendships than I’ve ever had in my life.

    As I dropped out of those other social activities, I started filling my evenings with different ones. I consciously decided to explore what was going on in my community, so I started looking at things like Meetup, the community calendar, the local library’s calendar, the local news, and so on. I was simply looking for new things to try and events and groups going on in my community.

    I tried out tons of things. Many didn’t click with me. Several did.

    Through those activities, I have a more robust social life than I’ve probably ever had in my entire life. I know far more people in my local community than I’ve ever known before. I’ve also built a handful of really strong lasting friendships, the kind where we talk about things far beyond the group, do things together outside of the group that have nothing to do with the activity, and generally keep in touch with each other. Several friendships have lasted far past both of us ending our participation in the activities in question.

    Making financial changes to my life forced me outside of my comfort zone a little. I had to try some new things, and my life was richly rewarded for doing so.

    Simply spending less than I earned, week in and week out, month in and month out, was the key to all of this.

    Literally every area of my life benefitted in the long run, and most benefitted in the short run, from turning my financial life around.

    My physical and mental life benefitted from the pure reduction in stress. My hobbies and my social life benefitted from trying new things. My marriage improved because we basically eliminated money arguments. My parental life improved due to a reduction in stress and more time at home. My professional life improved due to the increased amount of professional freedom and the vast increase in professional options.

    What did I really give up for that? I stopped spending money on things I didn’t really value very much. I lost a few people that weren’t central to my social life. I sold off some stuff I didn’t use. I dropped a couple of hobbies that were quickly replaced by other things.

    To me, that’s a no brainer trade, even from a short term perspective. It didn’t take long for most of those benefits to start appearing, and they grew rapidly.

    It’s time to turn things around. Make some changes, look for new things to do instead of lamenting what’s lost, and go with it.

    You’ll never look back.

    The post What I Gave Up And What I Gained appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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